Environmental groups and wildlife lovers near Joshua Tree National Park on Monday applauded a proposed state law that would ban trapping of bobcats for commercial purposes.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) introduced AB 1213 in response to the fury of thousands of people angered by the recent discovery of bobcat traps set along the boundaries of the national park. They responded with petition drives, social media campaigns and telephone calls to lawmakers.
"Assemblyman Bloom's bill is a critical step in bringing California's antiquated wildlife laws into the 21st century," said Brendan Cummings, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's wildlands programs and a resident of the community of Joshua Tree. "Right now, it's legal for trappers to line the boundary of a national park with traps, kill the park's wildlife and ship their pelts overseas."
Bloom expressed concern about the lack of reliable population estimates for bobcats in California, which he said makes it all but impossible for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine a sustainable harvest limit. The most recent survey of bobcats in Joshua Tree National Park was conducted in 1979.
Trappers are keenly interested in bobcats today because the price of a pelt has risen from $78 to about $700 since 2009 in China, Russia, Greece and other foreign markets. "So right now, the prudent thing to do is to stop commercial trapping because that will protect the species," Bloom said.
Bloom's legislation is not the first time the issue has been considered. In 1993, when trappers were battered by an economic recession and a fur glut, voters rejected a similar proposal advocated by animal rights advocates.
Trappers these days are running into opposition in communities where the bobcats are governing forces of the ecosystem and part of the draw for tourists visiting the national park.
Although bobcats are trapped primarily for their fur, existing state law classifies them as "nongame mammals" and provides no limit on the number of bobcats that may be taken by a licensed trapper.
Bloom's proposal would reclassify bobcats as "fur-bearing mammals" and make it illegal to trap them or to import, export or sell any bobcat part or product. The law would not ban sport hunting of bobcats.
Under existing regulations, trappers pay $111.50 for a license. They must check their traps once every 24 hours and report their take with the state each year.
An estimated 1,813 bobcats were taken during the 2011-12 license year, an increase of about 51% over the previous season, according to state wildlife authorities. Trappers took 1,499 of those bobcats, with hunters taking the rest.
The controversy flared last month when Morongo Valley residents discovered that trappers were operating on private property without permission and targeting bobcats crisscrossing the boundaries of 640,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park.
The two divergent sides have little sympathy or patience for each other.
"Trapping bobcats is an archaic activity that is counterproductive and led by extractionists for their own benefit and no one else's," said Joshua Tree astronomer and conservationist Tom O'Key, who was first to discover a trap in the area. "The community has embraced all this and helped take it to the level of proposed legislation."
Local trappers insist their practice is based on a deep appreciation and knowledge of bobcats — their diet, preferred terrain, hunting habits — and that they treat them humanely. For instance, they say they release any female bobcats or cubs they capture. In addition, they argue, the number of bobcats harvested annually is far exceeded by the number added to populations through reproduction.
One of the trappers who drew the ire of residents near Joshua Tree, Nathan Brock, had skinned 10 bobcats that he caught during the trapping season that ended Jan. 31. Brock was unavailable for comment.
The manufacturer of Brock's traps, Mercer Lawing of Barstow, declined to comment on the proposed trapping ban. In an earlier interview with The Times, however, Lawing summed up the trapping community's disdain for what he described as "emotional environmentalists" and all their passions about bobcats.
"There are more bobcats in California today because of us, not despite us," he said. "If a majority of the community wants to ban trapping, fine with me. Knock yourself out. But to push their agenda on the entire state is just wrong."