Furry friends – or foes – return to Illinois

By Michaela Meaney

‘Cougars, gray wolves and black bears – oh, my!’ Illinois residents may soon be able to justify misquoting the famous phrase from Dorothy and her friends.

These animals, missing from the state wildlife populations for more than 150 years, are slowly making their way back. So what do you do when they head down your yellow brick road – or driveway? In a recent conference at the Brookfield Zoo, academics, wildlife workers and volunteers discussed the return of these furry friends and how to prepare for their return.

“The big challenge is, where do we allow them to stay without killing them?” said Stanley Gehrt, associate professor and a wildlife specialist at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Click on the image above or on this link to see an interactive map of recent large carnivore sightings in Illinois.

One of Gehrt’s current research projects focuses on the growing coyote population in the Chicago area. Gehrt has studied over 800 coyotes in Cook County alone.

Coyotes have always been part of the Illinois landscape and studying these territorial animals can help prepare for the return of cougars, gray wolves and black bears, Gehrt said.

“They’re forcing the public to really grapple with the idea of living with a predator,” he said. “So now people are trying to figure out, ‘Well ok, now I’m going to have some level of tolerance. What’s the level going to be?’ So that may be useful for when a slightly larger predator comes along, at least people have already had the discussion of risk.”

WHY ARE THEY RETURNING?

Doug Dufford, program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, explained how these carnivores once freely roamed the state but were exiled in the mid-1800s due mostly to unregulated hunting and habitat changes. Dufford said no evidence exists of reproduction within the state or territories in considerable ranges, but these animals are most likely making their way back to Illinois because of other states’ expanding populations.

The potential re-colonization of these animals depends on a number of things, said Gehrt, such as prey availability, ability to navigate the landscape and human tolerance.

Dufford expanded upon the topic of re-colonization and mentioned that source populations are not too far from Illinois when it comes to black bears and gray wolves. The nearest breeding population of black bears is in Missouri, just 15 miles from Illinois, and Wisconsin, at 60 miles. For gray wolves, it’s 100 miles away in Wisconsin.

While those numbers may seem far distances for humans to travel on foot, it’s a different story when it comes to animals.

On average black bears can migrate up to 24 miles in a day and gray wolves can disperse up to 30 miles, according to Dufford. Cougars are the most mobile and can roam up to 500 miles as part of their territory. The nearest breeding populations are in South Dakota and Nebraska, 650 miles and 600 miles from Illinois, respectively. Female cougars and black bears remain close to their breeding populations while the males disperse, but when it comes to gray wolves, both males and females move on together.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Linda Thompson, 46, of Waukegan, recalled a time about eight years ago when she had a run-in with a large coyote. She was walking her dog near Lake Michigan on a winter night when a coyote showed up in front of her. Linda’s yelling and her dog barking didn’t deter the coyote from trotting toward them.

“My heart was definitely racing. It was just me and him, and there was nobody around,” she said.

Thompson managed to get away from the coyote and back to her car, but she said she was very nervous.

While Thompson explained she’d had experience dealing with wildlife and knew how to react, not everyone knows what to do when faced with a similar situation.

Dufford gave some tips to follow if a large carnivore, like a cougar and black bear, comes your way:

  • Do not run. “You suddenly appear like a predator,” Dufford said.
  • Stay calm.
  • Do not approach the animal.
  • Appear as large as possible.
  • Speak loudly.
  • Slowly back away.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Be aggressive. Dufford recommends grabbing a stick or rocks, if one is nearby.
  • Have some common sense. “These animals can move away faster than you and I can imagine,” Dufford said.
  • Again: DO NOT RUN.

When it comes to coyotes, Gehrt stressed similar actions.

“The biggest problem is when these animals become habituated toward people. We can either help maintain that fear of people by acting dominant or aggressive toward the animal, or we can educate them the wrong way by showing that they’re dominant over us,” he said. “So that can increase the rate of habituation unintentionally. Or some people actually feed them, which is the worst thing you can do, because that will accelerate the habituation and they’ll start to associate people with food.”

HOW WILL THEY BE DEALT WITH?

Recently passed Illinois senate bill, SB 3049, puts these animals on the protected species list, meaning they cannot be killed unless they pose an imminent threat to lives or property. This bill becomes law on Jan. 1.

“So the large carnivore situation, at least from the agency standpoint, is going to change dramatically at the first of the year,” Dufford said.

Dufford said that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in currently in the process of developing policy on how to deal with these animals in the state, but did not go into specifics. He also said the department is trying to create a response plan, modeled after other states that have had a history of large carnivores, like Wisconsin and South Dakota.

“In general our philosophy is to allow for the natural re-colonization of large carnivores in Illinois,” he said. “We don’t want to act to impede that process. There’s no plan or discussion at this point in time to be forward acting or have action toward ensuring that re-colonization. So as these animals proceed into the state, we’re going to let that process unfold at this point in time.”

While these are wild animals, other speakers stressed the importance of properly educating the public of the actual risks these animals pose.

“Keep in mind that a wolf is a wolf and the more factual information you can provide to the public the better, and an informed public is going to make better decisions,” said John Hart, district supervisor with the USDA-Wildlife Services program in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Photo caption: www.sierrawild.gov