Over the last several decades, the bobcat has gone from widespread and common in the Garden State, occurring in every county, to extremely rare.

Now it appears the population is picking up again — so much so, bobcats may fall off the state's endangered species list.

"Bobcats are restricted mainly to northern New Jersey, but we are seeing more bobcats in recent years in that northern region of the state," said Gretchen Fowles, a biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. "There's very few confirmed records in the past several years south of Route 78."

Fowles added that human encounters with these medium-sized cats may have picked up over the past year or so, since more people are staying closer to home and possibly using local trails for leisure because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But don't worry — bobcats rarely cause conflict with humans. In general, Fowles said, they want to avoid people, just like most wildlife.

"If folks encounter them, the best thing to do is just give them some space," she said. "And in almost every situation they're going to run away."

The bobcat, described by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection as a shy animal that's larger than a housecat but much smaller than a cougar or lion, prefers to prey on rabbits, mice, squirrels, turkeys and ground-nesting songbirds. Bobcats may also feed on small or sick deer.

Chances are you won't spot one in urban areas. According to DEP, bobcats den in crevices in rocks, under fallen logs, in thick tangles of vegetation, or under the root mass of a fallen tree.

The bobcat is on New Jersey's list of endangered species. Fowles said it's been proposed that bobcats be "downlisted" to threatened here.

The species was historically widespread in the Garden State. By the 1970s, bobcats were extremely rare. The biggest blow to their population, DEP notes, was massive deforestation.

Soon, a restoration project by the Division would relocate dozens of bobcats in North Jersey, and sightings began to increase by the 1990s.

With increased reports of bobcats, the state is also seeing more bobcats killed by automobiles. In 2019, a state-record 15 bobcats were killed by vehicles. Most road-killed bobcats are less than two years old.

Fowles said officials want to know if you see a bobcat — each sighting helps officials track the species. Use the form here to report any rare wildlife in New Jersey. Call 1-877-WARN-DEP if you spot a dead or injured bobcat.

Most sightings occur in Warren, Sussex, Passaic and Morris counties. In 2017, New Jersey received the first confirmed observations from Mercer County in decades.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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