Guess who is quietly sneaking back into our state?
Bobcats and cougars and wolves, oh my!
In a few years, you might also be able to add black bears to the above twist on Dorothy's familiar chant of "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" from the "Wizard of Oz."
Actually, it is a bit premature to be putting cougars, wolves and bears on the list of big predators living in Illinois. But odds are that those animals at the top of the food chain will be living in the state in the near future, although they are unlikely to thrive because of the state's urban density, large network of busy roads and unsuitable habitat.
Already, bobcats are doing quite well in parts of Illinois. According to a recent study by the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the bobcat population has increased substantially over the last decade to more than 2,000 in southern Illinois alone.
"Southern Illinois, West Central Illinois and northwest Illinois have the best habitat and contain the biggest concentrations. In those areas, the cats are not only common, they seem to be abundant," said Alan Woolf in an Associated Press story about the study. He is director of the wildlife laboratory at SIU.
Although the habitat for bobcats is poor in most of central and East Central Illinois, they have been sighted from time to time. There might even be a small population of bobcats living in Vermilion County.
"This wasn't recent, but about a year ago we had a confirmed sighting of a bobcat along the North Fork of the Vermilion River," said Ken Konsis, executive director of the Vermilion County Conservation District. "This came from someone with a lot of credibility, so I believe it. We've also had unconfirmed sightings at Forest Glen Park over the years.
"I was on the Vermilion River 25 years ago and heard a low growl that I can only attribute to a bobcat," he added.
However, there have been no confirmed bobcat sightings in Champaign County, "although we did have cougar sightings when I first started working here," said Andee Chestnut, public relations director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve.
Allerton Park sightings
The News-Gazette also has done articles over the years of cougar sightings at the University of Illinois Allerton Park and Conference Center, located 3 ½ - miles west of Monticello in Piatt County. And like the cougar sightings that Chestnut mentioned in Champaign County, the Allerton reports were very likely bobcats, which can look larger than they really are when stretched out in a full run.
Male bobcats can reach a maximum of 30 to 35 pounds and 35 to 40 inches in length. Females are smaller, reaching a maximum of 29 to 35 inches in length and 25 pounds. The largest bobcat captured for the study in Illinois was a 32-pound male. However, males averaged 25 pounds and females averaged 15 pounds.
Bobcats are extremely stealthy and difficult to spot, so it comes to a surprise to many Illinois residents that the state harbors a growing population.
"People spend their entire lives outdoors and never see one, so they're surprised we even have bobcats here," Woolf said. "Hearing that we've trapped bobcats near their homes and along busy roads kind of shocks them."
Ed Heske, a mammalogist at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, said the growling of bobcats has become a common sound in some parts of the state.
"You can't go to Dixon Springs State Park at night without hearing a bobcat scream. It sounds like a really loud housecat. It's pretty neat," he added.
Rabbits are the favorite prey of bobcats, although they will eat squirrels, rodents and other small animals. A large bobcat can even down a small deer. Illinois has a population of 700,000 to 750,000 white-tailed deer, and herds have even become established in the dense urban area of Cook County. It is those large deer herds that will eventually attract other large predators to the state.
A dead cougar in southwestern Illinois
Confirmed sightings of cougars have taken place in northern Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. A young juvenile male was hit in October by a car near Kansas City. The cougar, also known as the mountain lion, puma and panther, is slowly expanding its range to the East, from which it was extirpated more than a century ago. It is being drawn by ever-growing herds of white-tailed deer.
The body of a dead cougar was also recently found in Randolph County, located in southwestern Illinois south of St. Louis. The cougar had been hit by a train.
"It had its claws and there was no indication that it had been kept on a concrete pad" or other evidence that the animal had been a pet, said Bob Bluett, the state wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in Springfield. "There was another possible sighting in Pike County (in western Illinois across the Mississippi River from Hannibal, Mo.). The body shape looked good, but the photographs of the animal were pretty bad, so it's difficult to say for certain."
Wolves, bears doing well in border states
Honors for the big predator most likely to establish a foothold in the state goes to the wolf. The gray wolf has expanded its range from Canada and Minnesota into Wisconsin (they have been seen in the Madison area) and Michigan. The animal is doing quite well in Minnesota, with an estimated population of 2,500, followed by 320 in Wisconsin and 280 in Michigan.
"A young female had been radio-collared in Michigan and was shot by a man in Missouri who said it was harassing his dog. Whether that animal went through Illinois or not to get to Missouri, we don't know. But the ability of these large predators to travel long distances without being seen is pretty amazing," Bluett said.
Black bears have expanded from Arkansas into Missouri and also live in Kentucky. The neighboring states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have healthy bear populations, too.
Although Illinois has poor habitat for wolves, cougars and bears, the ability of those large predators to adapt to a wide variety of territory has surprised some scientists.
"When white-tailed deer were reintroduced in Illinois (in the 1930s), no one thought they would eventually be found in every corner of the state. They surprised the heck out of us. And it's somewhat the same thing we are seeing with the wolf," Bluett added.
"We've already got coyotes living in downtown Chicago."
Wolves, cougars and bears were common
Before the Euro-American settlement of Illinois, wolves, cougars and bears could be found across much of the state. Although pre-settlement conditions will never be recreated, the possible return of big predators points to a healthier ecosystem.
They help keep the populations of deer, raccoons, possums, squirrels and other animals in check.
Despite the impact of hunters, some deer herds have become so large, especially in certain parks, that they have to be regularly culled; otherwise they would destroy the habitat, starve to death, or both.
If wolves become established in Illinois, then they will surely make a dent in the deer population.
People like Liz Harper, an information specialist with the International Wolf Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn., welcome the return of big predators.
"Wolves and other big predators have their place in a healthy ecosystem," Harper said.
"They started out in Minnesota then expanded to Wisconsin and Michigan. Two things have allowed them to expand: the Endangered Species Act (different populations are listed as either endangered or threatened; all are protected) and the large white-tail deer population.
"If wolves have a place to live, along with food and water, and no persecution, they can increase rapidly," she added.
It is the "persecution" part of that equation that can be a huge factor in whether a population of big predators can establish itself in Illinois. One of the leading causes of death among cougars, wolves and bears is being shot by hunters or poachers.
The other leading cause of death is being hit by a vehicle.
"They have large home ranges and need a lot of room to roam. We have a lot of roads with a lot of cars on them," Bluett said.
Nor are there any recovery plans for any large predators in Illinois. The state appears to be taking a laissez faire approach.
"None are protected explicitly by state law, although the wolf is nationally threatened/endangered. All the big predators are considered extirpated from Illinois," Bluett added.
Predators coming, but will they survive?
Nevertheless, Bluett has no doubt that at some point large predators - whether wolves, cougars or bears - will find their way into the state with increasing frequency.
"I think it is more a matter of when than if," Bluett said. "We're seeing super-long movements by these large predators. I don't suspect we'll be taken by surprise. We'll see an increase that will go from a ripple to a wave."
If that happens, and if a large predator can establish a breeding population, then the state may take some sort of action.
What the state does will depend largely on what the public wants.
"All three large predators have a tendency to get in trouble with people," Bluett said. "There is a perception of these large predators not belonging here and that may keep (their numbers) down."
According to a recent story in the New York Times about cougars expanding their range, the big cats have killed 17 people in the United States and Canada since 1890. Black bears have killed 37 people in North America since 1907. There are no known deaths attributed to wolves in North America.
On the other hand, car accidents kill about 110 people on a daily basis in the United States.
By comparison, the odds of being killed or injured by a large predator are extremely low and people need to take that into account, according to Harper.
In the vast majority of instances, large predators shy away from humans.
"There are a lot of people who still hold on to old beliefs. We live in peril in this world. You could step off a curb tomorrow and get hit by a truck.
"In reality, lawnmowers kill more people in the United States than large predators do," Harper said.
"I think it's very exciting that large predators are making a comeback."