If only the 'cat could be interviewed. Does he know he could outrun the dog if he ran directly cross-country? Does he know he could kick the insides out of the dog if he wanted to? Does he know there's a man with a gun back there following the dog? It's the dog's determination against the 'cat's cunning. And it's considered a game by the man, although no one ever asks the 'cat if he wants to play. At times it may look as if the 'cat is making a game of it, considering his control of its course, but it can't be a game because the 'cat can't win. The best it can do is break even. And the hunter can't lose because breaking even is the worst he can do.
Cronk doesn't see it as a no-win situation for the 'cat. Even if he gets killed in the end, the 'cat is ahead of the game, Cronk figures, having lived free and exciting years in the wilderness. "I don't get a kick out of killing animals," he says. "The shooting part is what I get the least satisfaction out of. When I'm chasing a 'cat I can't think, 'Boy, I'll be glad when I shoot you.' Sometimes I look at him and think what a pretty animal he is. He's really a beautiful animal, and sometimes I look at a bobcat and think, 'There's a wild animal.' "
No one really knows how many bobcats there are in the Allagash; how do you count ghosts in the woods? The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife divides the state into eight wildlife management units. The Allagash area, Unit 2, contains 8,503 square miles of bobcat habitat, and the department's best guess is that there is at least one 'cat per 10 square miles. In the last three seasons, poor for hunting because of either too much or too little snow, 47 bobcats were taken in Unit 2, 31 by trapping and 16 by hunting. (Cronk estimates he has killed about 100 in his lifetime.) The average bobcat harvest in recent years has been 400 statewide, a figure considered "healthy" by Maine wildlife officials.
There was a bounty on the bobcat in Maine from 1909 to 1975, instigated by deer hunters, because every deer killed by a 'cat was one less for them to shoot. Politically powerful because of their numbers, the deer hunters prevailed upon the state legislature to maintain the bounty—since 1935 an insultingly low $15—until the bobcat became a conservation cause. In December 1981, as a result of a suit originated by Defenders of Wildlife, an injunction was issued by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C. banning all exports of bobcat pelts. The ban was lifted a year later by the same court after Congress established a new law liberalizing the standards by which the Department of the Interior can determine whether allowing the export of pelts from a state would be detrimental to a species.
At the court hearings Defenders of Wildlife had unsuccessfully challenged the government's interpretation of the new law. Now Defenders has appealed that court's ruling and is awaiting a decision on its request for an emergency injunction to reinstate the ban pending a higher court's ruling.
Whether their pelts can be exported or not, Cronk doesn't worry about the bobcats' future in Maine. "The 'cats survived through the '30s and '40s," he says, "when there was a lot more hunting than there is now. They're tough; they couldn't survive these conditions if they weren't. They'll be here forever."
Last season a bobcat pelt might have brought a Maine hunter or trapper $80, down from as much as $300 in 1979-80. It takes a dozen pelts to make a full-length coat, which can cost $8,000. It's beautiful but not very practical because bobcat fur doesn't wear well; like that of any cat, it looks scruffy when it gets caught in the rain.
When the export ban took effect in 1981, the bottom dropped out of the bobcat pelt market. Today the bobcat invariably costs the hunter money in time, travel and equipment that he cannot hope to recoup, which means that for most the hunting now is done for fun, not economic gain. In the leather-bound Bible by his bed, Cronk is, reassured by Genesis, Chapter I, Verse 26, which says God gave man dominion over animals. He believes that means animals were put on earth for man to use, period. From a scientific standpoint, he believes in the "harvest theory," that by the careful culling of a few animals the whole crop will be strengthened. He defines a conservationist as someone who doesn't kill an animal that can't be spared, and he considers himself a strong one. Of his "Maine Traplines" column he says, "The most satisfaction I get is when I write about wildlife conservation."
Cronk sees himself—and his camp, truck, snowmobile and shotgun—as part and parcel of the balance of nature, and believes any changes he makes to that balance already have been allowed for. God certainly knows that men, dogs, shotguns and bobcats are all down here mixing it up; do you think hunting was an oversight?
Cronk and Emerson never got their bobcat that season of 1980-81. The next winter, after a busy fall trapping season—three coyote carcasses hung against the camp to feed the chickadees—Cronk had more time for bobcat hunting because of continuing low prices for beaver pelts. As late as mid-January, conditions were no better than the previous winter. There was unremitting cold and deep powder snow. So he had a lot of time to spend writing his third book, Cronk's Scientific Beaver Trapping. He set a few beaver traps, at the game warden's encouragement; the beavers were busily damming the streams, and if they weren't controlled there would be flooding over the logging road in the spring. Selling the traps just before Christmas, Cronk had spotted the tracks of a 'cat on the road by Moody Bridge over on the St. John. He figured its hunting ground must be near the river to the west. That was the 'cat he would be after.