The sun dropped behind the mountains and the day ended. The woods, so warm and open only minutes before, closed in over the gravel road. The headlights pushed a fuzzy cone of light through the wild terrain. The two men inside the car were as hidden as the animals that seemed to watch them.

They were late, as one is so often late in the woods; quiet, as usual when the day has no gloaming, when night falls like the lid on a cast-iron stove. Even the radio was no more than a light in the dashboard. Reception in the folds of the long ridges which snake up Virginia and West Virginia into Maryland is no better than sporadic.

They crossed a narrow wooden bridge and followed the road around a rocky out-cropping.

A small rabbit stood frozen in the headlights a few yards in front of the car, its eyes blank mirrors.

Before the driver could shift his foot from the gas to the brake pedal, another form bounded through the light. It met the rabbit's image and the road was empty.

"Damn," the driver said, stalling the car. "What was that?"

The sight, more afterimage than clear vision, a blur, frightened them for a moment with its wildness.

They looked on the road for tracks, gaining even breath again, but the rock and gravel gave no more sign than the brush. They could hear the brook in the bottom of the gully but nothing else.

"A bobcat?"

"No. There aren't any bobcats around here."

"Sure there are. Lots of them."

"I've never seen one."

"That doesn't mean they aren't around. It had to be a bobcat. It couldn't have been anything else."

The encounter, with variations, is repeated seldom. The bobcat is pure carnivore, a predator which depends for its continued existence on stealth and near invisibility. Its life is still raw and man's refined methodologies are pushed to limits attempting to define the where and how of this wild animal.

Small, the size of a plump young beagle, spotted, a confusing reddish blend with ground and vegetation, the bobcat has held the interstices of the wild lands across this country for thousands of years. The predator wars of the 19th century failed to wipe it out in the East as they did the timber wolf and the puma. The Eastern Shore of Maryland is the only area in the Washington region where the bobcat was officially extirpated, and even there people come in sometimes at night with reports of sighting a cat with a short tail.

The small adrenalin rush the men in the car felt at the sight of the bobcat's kill was nothing compared to the surge of cat's. It depends on a lightning-like peak of physical systems to rush prey. The squeeze is such that if it is successful it must gorge on meat and blood immediately to replace what the effort cost.

If the cat is not successful, it must rest before it can hunt again. But its economics are frugal. In captivity a bobcat needs only one meal a week. In the woods and active, hunting for itself, spending great amounts of energy with each dash from hiding, it must take more. Rabbits, squirrels and mice supply most of its diet, but it will eat insects, birds and eggs as well.

Bobcats are reported to have killed deer, and biologists have found venison in the stomachs of the cats, but it is likely that the deer had already been injured, perhaps by hunters more enthusiastic than able.

Bobcats were once bountied and hounded without season, before the professions of game management, wildlife biologist and ecologist were established. Even if it didn't kill large quantities of wild game or farm livestock, the predator "didn't work for its living," and was outside God's grace, an agent of the devil and an apparent antagonist of "civilization." A dead bobcat nailed on the barn was as much honest retribution as a rotting crow hung on a barbed-wire fence.

Somehow the babcat survived, except in areas where urbanization or "clean" farming wiped out all its prey and hiding places and where dogs, in alliance with men, ran half wild in the fields. No farmer's child with a birthday-given .22 could resist a treed cat. Ohio and Indiana have no more bobcats.

The dog, in the wild as well as in the neighborhood, is the cat's nemesis. A total predator, the bobcat has evolved to function only as a hunter. It is shaped for silence and the quick strike. Its big padded paws are capable of movement without the rustle of a leaf or the click of a pebble. It hunts by sight, and its eyes are night efficient, doubly processing whatever light is available.Its speed lasts only for a short dash. The bobcat is not built to flee, and a chase will quickly exhaust it, forcing it to tree or hole up. Dogs without men lose interest and go away. But if man or boy follows, no shot is easier than a still object in the crotch of a tree.

Yet the bobcat is so efficient in its place in nature that it lives and breeds, difficult to see, spitting at extinction.

The bobcat might be at relative peace in its life now if it were not that the spots of its hide, so advantageous to the animal in the wild, are so distinctive on city streets. Spotted fur is considered a desirable decoration for women's coats.

One of America's primary exports in Colonial times was furs. In 1621, Virginia sent furs back to England, and the bobcat's hide was then considered as worthy as that of mink or otter. Prime winter pelts, when the animal grew insulation intended for its own preservation, brought as much as 10 shillings. But the bobcat pelt is rough and brittle compared to most other furs and it fell from favor with the fur industry. The few hides Europeans bought were used for trim on cloth coats, no more valuable than fancy embroidery.

So the bobcat was overlooked in the annals of American wildlife. It was not an economic resource or a very obvious or easy subject for research, not even (it was belatedly learned) a significant predator. Those who cared, cared more about the mountain lion, the wolf or the big-money animal of the wild -the white-tailed deer, which drew millions of would-be Natty Bumpos to the woods each year, spending many times their numbers in license fees, guns, ammunition and all the assorted extras they needed to affirm some mystical process of blood that causes men to hunt.

The United States signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. The same year the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress. At the time this activity didn't seem to have any relationship to the bobcat lurking in America's back woods.

The bobcat was having good time of it, so said state fish and game agency staffers who were paying any attention. The cats had been protected by a few states, such as Pennsylvania, where too many had been taken, but as a species it was considered healthy.

The profession of game management had been born in the 1930s and it grew, intent on providing all those free-spending hunters with an object. The bobcat profited by the new set of rules. More land was managed for game production: without intent more land was provided for bobcat propagation.

Along with the deer, wiped out 50 years ago in Virginia, the bobcat came back. In western Maryland the bobcat multiplied under the protection of gamelaws directed toward other animals. The excess bobcat population drifted down the state under the cover of the C & O Canal into Montgomery County. In the Alleghenies and in the Blue Ridge the bobcat proliferated, edging off the mountains into the new woodlands as farms fell into disuse, startling the first inhabitants of suburban developments, then falling back before the subdivisions that raped the land.

In May of 1977, Congress passed implementing legislation, setting up the inter-agency office of the Endangered Species Authority to direct U.S. compliance with CITES. By that time the bobcat had become hot stuff.

CITES had banned trade in the hides of all the big spotted cats such as the jaguar and the cheetah. In 1976, the bobcat was listed on Appendix II of the treaty because the signatories thought it and other species not yet endangered with extinction might become endangered because of the ban on big cats. The fur industry was as voracious as the wild cats were once reputed to be. Spotted fur was needed, and the price on bobcat hides soared.

In the 1976-77 trapping season 106,000 bobcats were reported taken for furs in the United States. A few years before the numbers were so small as to be unrecorded.

One of Endangered Species' first moves, in November 1977, was to propose that all exports of bobcat fur be banned. Statistics from the Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations seemed to dicatre such action.

A fight worthy of the wild cat was on. State game commissions protested with all the force they could mucter. The International Association of Fish and Game Agencies howled with outrage. The bobcat is not endangered, they insisted. The bobcat is better off now than it has been in 50 years.

Endangered Species backed off. It allowed export of bobcat hides on a state-by-state quota system for the 1977-78 trapping season. No one was happy and 87,400, bobcats were taken.

The Defenders of Wildlife and its allies proclaimed that a total ban was necessary to protect the bobcat. The market in bobcat fur was such that a prime northwestern pelt had gone from $20 to as much as $400. Even in Virginia, where the pelt is smaller and thinner, the hide was worth $85 or more. Banning exports, it was argued, would stop demand and trapping of the cats.

Nonsense, countered the International Association of Fish and Game Agencies. Bobcats were plentiful, and the harvest was a harmless new and unexpected source of revenue for the states. There were so many bobcats out there that sending a few to Europe wouldn't make any difference.

Statistics flew faster than fur. The bulk of information for the fray was from the state fish and game agencies. Some numbers appeared to be fanciful. Texas and Alabama reported more resident bobcats than most biologists believe would be possible if there were no humans in those states.

The politics of fish and game management are complex. Most state fish and game departments are not exactly in the pockets of hunters, much less trappers. However, when the dust of letter and statistical campaigns had settled momentarily, Endangered Species retreated to a stance of no bobcat fur export quotas for the 1978-79 trapping season except for New Mexico and Wyoming, where there were no seasons or restrictions on bobcat take.

The Defenders of Wildlife switched tactics. They presented evidence that of the nine subspecies of the American bobcat, Lynx rufus, six are endangered. The group is preparing a suit to force Endangered Species to declare those subspecies endangered and banned for export.

The counter argument is that the subspecies issue is of interest only to academic "lumpers and splitters" and that when CITES meets this month the United States should remove the bobcat from Appendix II.

In Maryland the bobcat is protected for the time being. Duane Pursley of the game management department says the state is surveying habitat quality and will soon determine bobcat population density by county according to habitat. He expects an open season on bobcat in western Maryland within a few years, as soon as his survey is complete.

Virginia reported a stable population of 12,000 bobcats to Endangered Species last year but no one in the fish and game department is ready to say how that number was determined. Joe Coggins, one of Virginia's two supervising research biologists, syas that they just don't have the ability to accurately determine the number of bobcats in the state. According to Coggins, wildlife biologists haven't yet discovered a reliable method to determine bobcat populations anywhere.

Gerald Blank, a self-taught naturalist and trapper for 50 years in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, is the trapping specialist for the Virginia Fish and Game Commission. When the researchers want to study an animal, Blank traps it. He is said to be the most knowledgeable man in the state about bobcats.

Blank says wildlife biologists don't know anything about bobcats.

"They go to school," he says, "and they learn about laboratories and numbers. They should learn to trap, learn how to read the woods, then they might be able to tell what's going on out there.

"As long as we don't build houses all over the mountains, the bobcats will be all right."

The bobcat, scion of the wild to some, renewable resource to others, is no longer the bastard child of the woods.No one seeks its demise or hopes to silence its raucous screams in the night. But until the cat's would-be protectors become skillful at determining its existence, the bobcat's true dimensions will be no more substantial than an afterimage on a gravel road at night. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Susan Davis