On the Air: Wild Predators in Illinois?

Remember the black bear spotted throughout the summer wandering through cornfields and backyards in Northern Illinois? Several large mammals that we are not used to seeing in the Chicago region have been turning up occasionally in recent years. Not just bears, but also cougars and wolves. Get the camera! This is pretty cool. As long as you are indoors and the animal is outdoors.

Will Illinois become home to these animals or are they just passing through? Will we see more of these wild predators in the coming years? To explore these questions, Jerome and I talked with two wildlife management experts on the EcoMyths Worldview segment: Bill Ziegler, SVP of Animal Programs at the Chicago Zoological Society; and Mike Redmer, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It turns out that wolves, bears, and cougars have been returning to Illinois as their populations have grown in several neighboring states. Bill Ziegler describes these animals as “apex predators” because they are at the top of the carnivore food chain. In Illinois, their optimal food sources would include the overpopulation of raccoons and deer. As Bill points out, the return of the large predators could help “achieve the natural balance of all these other animals.”

Home Sweet Home for Apex Predators

Behold, the mighty black bear! (USFWS/Steve Hillebrand)
Behold, the mighty black bear! (USFWS/Steve Hillebrand)

Mike Redmer points out that historically Illinois has actually been native territory for these large carnivores. But it has been over 100 years: cougars, wolves, and bears were all last seen in the state in the 1860s. It has been so long, in fact, that local residents are not used to co-habitating with them although our neighbors in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota have been doing so all this time. Between 2000 and 2014, there have been a handful of sightings of cougars, wolves, and bears in Illinois, but not a lot. There have only been a total of 25 confirmed sightings of these apex predators since 2000: Black bears: 2-3; cougars: 13-14; wolves: 8.

In states like Colorado and parts of California, where people encounter large predators regularly, the public feels more informed about these animals and even excited to see them. Locally, this level of knowledge is something wildlife experts would like to strive for.

Bears, wolves, and wolverines are also rapidly increasing their populations in Europe after years of decline. A commission called the “EU Platform on the Coexistence Between People and Large Carnivores” (pithy title), had its first working session in June 2014, but they’ve been organizing the committee for two years so that all the stakeholders (farmers, landowners, conservationists, hunters, and scientists) are represented.

State Agencies are Preparing a Response Plan

Should we fear them? We certainly need to keep a respectful distance. But not to worry. Ziegler and Redmer were among the expert hosts of a conference last week at the Brookfield Zoo to start planning how to coordinate the official response when one of these animals comes to town. At the end of this process, state agencies, animal control, law enforcement, and even the public will have response mechanisms for how to keep both people safe and, as much as possible, the animals as well.

Listen to the Worldview podcast of our conversation above for the whole story and to learn more about cougars, bears, and wolves. For a deeper dive, read the full Myth: Wild Predators Belong Anywhere But Here.

This content also appears on WBEZ.org as part of our partnership with Chicago Public Media.