Peggy Doty provides educational programs about coexisting with large predators for the University of Illinois Extension.
Photo by Joyce Seay-Knoblauch / ACES-ITCS
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A black bear has created quite a stir in recent weeks by roaming several communities in Northern Illinois. No one could be more excited about the reappearance of bears in Illinois than Peggy Doty, who provides educational programs about coexisting with large predators for the University of Illinois Extension.
Doty, an energy and environmental stewardship educator with the Extension, spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about Illinois' wildlife populations and efforts to manage them.
Bears are frequently spotted in surrounding states, so why haven't they been in Illinois? And why are they now returning?
When Europeans began settling Illinois and cutting down the forests to farm the land, the bears extirpated - they left - because it wasn't a suitable habitat.
The entire North America was bears' original home range, so they're natural here. The bears don't prefer Illinois because there's too much open space and not enough forest, except in southern Illinois and the upper northwest corner of the state.
Experts estimate currently there are about 750,000 black bears in North America.
Missouri released 254 bears in the Ozarks during the 1950s and 1960s to bring back that population, and they are still thriving.
I see the bear population building up in southern Illinois first, because every county south of St. Louis has had bear sightings. However, the Missouri bears have yet to figure out how to cross the Mississippi River, and there were would have to be males and females crossing for them to repopulate Illinois.
The bear population in Wisconsin is very close to the northern edge of Illinois.
The bear that's introduced himself into Illinois recently is a small, young one. This time of year, mother bears are having new litters and kicking out their older cubs. This bear is most likely a male because males will travel up to 100 miles away from their mothers. Females usually do not venture more than 10 miles from their moms.
Wolves require an expanse of forested area for habitat and prefer big game such as elk to sustain them. Only about 14 percent of Illinois could sustain a small pack of wolves.
When the elk left Illinois in the 1800s, the wolves left too.
It takes wildlife a really long time - if ever - to make an adaptation like habitat change.
In the end, society makes the decisions. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is working hard to get input from the people of our state. We can't shut a gate and deny admittance to the apex predators – which are those at the top of the food chain, such as bears, cougars and wolves – but we do have to manage them, and we will end up managing them based on society's choices.
My goal is to educate people with objective information so when it comes down to voting for things such as establishing a hunting/trapping season – and not just eliminating the animals – we can make an educated choice in the matter.
What are the criteria for a sighting of one of these rare animals to be counted as an official sighting?
IDNR won't count a wolf sighting unless they can take a DNA sample or have a carcass to do so. This is because in the early 1990s, it was very chic to own a dog-wolf hybrid as a pet, and genetics is the only way to confirm an animal is a wolf.
However, if you get a picture or a footprint of a cougar or a black bear, those can be counted.
There's a bill awaiting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's signature that would affect various wildlife populations. Which of these animals are currently protected species and how will that bill affect them if it becomes law?
The bear is not currently protected. However, the bill before Gov. Quinn would make the cougar and bear protected species as of Jan. 1, meaning people can't kill them unless they're in fear for someone's life or for their livelihood, such as livestock. Fines would be imposed if the species are shot for any other reason.
The wolf is already protected and classified as a 'threatened species' from Interstate 80 north; below I-80, they are considered endangered.
This is because areas in the northern states, where the wolves are delisted already, have hunting seasons. Wolves are less likely to exist farther away from those states; hence, they are still considered endangered south of I-80.
There are hunting seasons for coyotes, and they can only be hunted in season, like raccoons. People can hunt and trap for the pelts, but they have to be licensed.
We haven't had an apex predator in Illinois since the late 1800s, when the bears and wolves left, so our food chain has been out of whack. Hence we have a surplus of deer and coyotes.
The coyotes have adapted very well to not having the apex predators in Illinois, and their population extends across North America all the way to Alaska now.
How would the re-emergence of these large predators likely affect the balance of the Illinois ecosystem?
It would balance out the food chain a little better. The wolf population would control the coyote population. Though some are concerned the apex predators will take too many deer, it is more likely we would have a healthier population and see less disease in our deer herds.
In the 1990s, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park as a secondary apex predator to the grizzly bear, which was going into decline. The wolves naturally began killing the elk, giving the grizzlies more carrion to eat. It also reduced the elk population, which diminished the over-browsing of grass along the river and the erosion that was occurring.
The trees quintupled in size in six years. Birds came back. The whole habitat was improved.
What should people do if they run into one of these predators, or if these animals venture onto their property?
Don't feed them. Keep them afraid of humans. We have to treat them as wild animals and let them stay wild.
Pull in your birdfeeders, barbecue grills and pet food at night and put them back out in the morning. Don't encourage the wild animal's coming back to that space.