Prior to European settlement, black bears, gray wolves, and mountain lions were an important part of the Midwestern landscape. Then as the number of farms and towns grew, populations of these animals declined due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Today, while individuals occasionally move through the state, there are no breeding populations of bears, wolves, or mountain lions (also known as cougars) left in Illinois. What does the future hold? Will these large carnivores make a successful comeback in Illinois? And what will that mean for the people, other animals, and plants that now call Illinois home?
SB3049, which passed both houses of the Illinois Legislature, amends the Illinois Wildlife Code by adding black bears, mountain lions, and gray wolves to the list of protected species. The bill which awaits the Governor's signature will likely take effect January 1, 2015. Gray wolves are listed as a State Threatened Species throughout Illinois and are also listed as Federally Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service south of Interstate 80.
In the United States, populations of bears, wolves, and mountain lions are growing in various areas of the country, but the amount of suitable habitat available is not. That sometimes pushes young animals long distances in search of a new place to set up a territory.
Black bears are the most widespread of the three large mammals. Currently, there are black bear populations in 39 US states, 11 Canadian provinces and territories, and as many as 12 Mexican states. Populations of gray wolves experienced the largest declines of the three species and survived only in Minnesota and Isle Royale. Wolves have recolonized portions of Wisconsin and Michigan and have recolonized and/or been reintroduced to western states. Established breeding populations of mountain lions occur in the western US, but not in the Midwest. However, since 1990, the Cougar Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying cougar-habitat relationships, confirmed the presence of more than 300 mountain lions outside their established range in western North America. Mountain lions are slowly making their way east, closing in on the Midwestern states.
The habitat used by the three species is very similar. Black bears and wolves require less territory than mountain lions. About 60 percent of bear habitat is suitable for mountain lions, and more than 90 percent is also good wolf habitat. However, in Illinois suitable habitat for any of the three species is very limited.
Research conducted at Southern Illinois University indicates that only 13 to 14 percent of Illinois contains habitat that would support a population of wolves. The Shawnee Forest in southern Illinois, habitat along the Illinois River in west-central Illinois, and a small swatch of land in northwest Illinois are the most likely areas. Biologists think that bears may be more successful in recolonizing the Midwest than cougars or wolves because they are already more widespread and they do not compete as directly for prey as mountain lions and wolves do. Public acceptance of bears is also typically higher.
Having an idea of where large carnivores might travel across the state or establish breeding populations will allow managers to proactively address potential human-carnivore conflicts. Mapping the available suitable habitat will help biologists prepare for the potential influence of large carnivores on prey populations, other predators, and the landscape. Understanding public attitudes will help direct and inform educational and outreach initiatives and assist the development of large carnivore management plans.
Since much of the remaining continuous habitat of large mobile mammals such as the black bear, mountain lion, and wolf spans multiple states, efficient coordination by agencies across state and county boundaries is critical. A species' protected status and population management decisions should be based on specific populations data rather than state boundaries.
Recently the Illinois Department of Natural Resources funded several research projects that developed habitat models for each species and assessed the attitudes and opinions of Illinoisans regarding large carnivores. You can learn more by viewing the presentations below.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is interested in any information or possible sightings of bear, wolves, or mountain lions in Illinois. Please include specific location information, and if available, send photos or track castings. When taking images of tracks, please include a ruler or an object of known size so that the size of the track can be determined. Also take wider angle images of the tracks that include identifiable objects on the landscape for site confirmation purposes. The information may also be sent to:
Wildlife Disease and Invasive Wildlife Program Manager
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Division of Wildlife Resources
8542 North Lake Road
Lena, IL 61048
Office Phone (815) 369-2414
Office Fax (815) 369-2128