Lions and gray wolves and bears? Oh, my!
New Illinois law offers 3 native species protection
CHAMPAIGN — Coyote hunters in Illinois may now want to take a closer look before taking a shot — just to be sure they're not sizing up a gray wolf.
With recent sightings of wolves throughout the state, a hunter mistakenly shooting one of these federally — and, as of Monday, state- — protected species is becoming more a possibility.
"Wolves are much bigger than coyotes," said Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Tim Schweizer. "And no matter what you're hunting, you should always make sure what you're shooting."
The gray wolf, along with the American black bear and mountain lion, will come under the protection of the Illinois Wildlife Code beginning on Jan. 1, IDNR director Marc Miller announced Monday. Senate Bill 3049, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, gives the agency the authority to manage the species for the protection of both wildlife and public safety.
The move was prompted by recent encounters with all three species, which are native to the Land of Lincoln but haven't lived here since the mid-1800s.
State natural resources officials have good reason to believe that's changing.
— Beginning in May, they say, a black bear made a 300-mile loop in a 30-day period, roaming from the northwestern part of Illinois to the north central part, then back near Galena, in Jo Daviess County. There have been no sightings since then, state spokesman Chris Young said, with the bear now believed to be in Wisconsin.
— In December, a female gray wolf was killed by a vehicle in LaSalle County. The core of the Midwest's wolf population is in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but it has begun to spread south, according to conservation officials.
— And in November, an Illinois Conservation Police officer shot and killed a cougar in Whiteside County after a farm owner reported seeing a large cat exiting a corn field. The IDNR says there's no evidence that a breeding population of cougars exists in Illinois, but occasional transient ones have been found here in recent years, likely traveling from the West. There were three confirmed cougars in Illinois between 2002 and 2008, and all three were genetically similar to mountain lions from South Dakota, according to the IDNR.
Before now, only the gray wolf had protection here as an endangered species, meaning it cannot be killed unless it presents an imminent threat to people. Now, under this legislation, similar protections will be extended to black bears and mountain lions. The new law also allows landowners to apply for nuisance permits to kill animals that are not immediate threats to people or property.
Illinois has relatively little suitable habitat in large enough blocks to support established populations of any of these three animals, state officials say. According to habitat models, only about 14.7 percent of the state is suitable for black bears, 6.6 percent for mountain lions and 14 percent for gray wolves.
And the majority of those suitable areas are not in agriculture-dominated East Central Illinois. They're mostly in southern and western Illinois, where there's more wooded habitat, including sections along the Illinois River corridor.
The nearest local sighting of any of the three large predators happened in 2002 — a wolf in Marshall County, almost a two-hour haul from Champaign.
But state and local officials say anything's possible. As Vermilion County Conservation District Executive Director Ken Konsis points out, both wolves and cougars prey on white-tailed deer, which are no strangers to this part of the state.
Through the years, Konsis has read reports of all sorts of animal sightings — a flurry of black panthers in the 1970s, cougars in the '90s. There's always the possibility that someone had an exotic animal that got away, he said.
For now, the species posing the biggest problems locally aren't bears, wolves or cougars, Konsis said. They're bobcats and river otters, which his district helped reintroduce with a local release into the Vermilion River more than 10 years ago.
"Now we're getting complaints," Konsis said, "because they're cleaning out ponds with fish."