Large predators coming to Illinois

By Sean Phee

Axyl Blades, a senior from Assumption studying physical therapy, said when he was near the end of a trail in Giant City State Park this summer he quickly ran out of the woods after hearing a mysterious growl.

Blades said he may have misidentified the sound but there is a possibility that the growl could have been from a mountain lion, wolf or bear. The sightings of these animals has been on the rise in the last couple decades.

There have been 10 confirmed wolf sightings in northern Illinois since 2002, but there were none reported from 1900 to 2002, according to the Associated Press. The wolves are suspected to have traveled from Wisconsin.


Chris Young, public information officer of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said there have been more than 10 mountain lion sightings in the state in the last two years.

The state legislature passed a bill Aug. 25 that protects mountain lions, black bears and wolves from being hunted, he said. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Matt R. Whiles, a professor of zoology, said these animals were not protected before the August legislation because its been a long time since Illinois had a significant population of them.

In November 2013, the DNR was criticized for fatally shooting a mountain lion, also known as a puma, cougar, panther and catamount, on a farmer’s property, according to the Chicago Tribune.

When people hear that the bears are back, they probably hope it means the Chicago Bears will return to their former winning ways. However, actual bears are returning to Illinois and more than 14 bears sightings have been reported this year, according to CBS Chicago.

USA Today reported there were 450,000 bears in the United States in the early 20th century. That number has since doubled.

While bears are not native to Illinois, they can survive here, Whiles said. Of the large predator species being protected come Jan. 1, Whiles said bears have the best chance of establishing a significant population.


“Of the three, black bears seem the most tolerant of human activities and habitat modifications, so it’s possible they could reach appreciable numbers in some areas of the state,” he said.

Whiles, director of the SIU Center for Ecology, said cougars disappeared entirely from the state in 1900 because of hunting and urbanization.

There are no significant mountain lion populations east of the Mississippi River besides a small endangered group in Florida, according to National Geographic. The animals are now making a comeback to Midwestern states.

While cougars have been spotted in southern Illinois, Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, Giant City State Park’s natural resource coordinator, said she does not think they are here in large numbers.

“I don’t know of one case of a mountain lion being spotted in Giant City,” she said.

Whiles said he remains skeptical that the animals will establish a large population in the state.

“It appears that populations of these species are bouncing back in some areas where they were once extirpated,” Whiles said. “But it’s unlikely that large numbers will ever exist in Illinois given habitat limitations and the fragmented nature of a remaining suitable habitat.”

Still, the sightings of these predators have gotten the attention of the state legislature, Whiles said.

Whiles said it is important to protect large animals like bears, wolves and mountain lions because they help achieve balance in the ecosystem. Deer populations are at a record high and large predators control their numbers.

“Large carnivores such as wolves and mountain lions can be important regulators of prey populations,” he said. “Without them, overpopulation and associated density-dependent issues such as disease can become problematic.”

Whiles said he admires the animals for their cultural significance as well.

“Beyond their ecological importance, they are also an exciting part of our natural heritage, and should be respected and conserved accordingly,” he said

Whiles said although people have been killed by the animals, the threat posed by them is minimal.

“Compared to the everyday threats we face from other people, automobile accidents, disease, etc., there isn’t much to worry about,” he said.