Cougars, Gray Wolves, and Black Bears in the Prairie State?
I have had the good fortune to conduct wildlife research in Illinois for 25 years through the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University (SIU). Some of my work has focused on carnivores, rooted in a large study of bobcat ecology we conducted in southern Illinois during the late-1990s, which proved these animals were making a strong comeback and ultimately led to their delisting as a state threatened species. As we were wrapping up the bobcat study in July 2000, I was summoned via phone by my advisor, Dr. Alan Woolf, who asked me to go to a campus outbuilding because he “had something to show me.” Well, such a request usually meant more work for me, so I was a little hesitant, but went across campus anyway.
As I neared the building where we conducted animal necropsies, there hanging from a scale was a beautiful subadult male cougar that had been hit by a train in Randolph County—the first confirmed cougar in Illinois in more than 100 years. I could hardly believe my eyes and became immediately enthralled with the idea that large carnivores could be trying to make a comeback in the Midwest. As further “hard evidence” of cougars, such as roadkills or unambiguous game camera photos (not sightings – they cannot be verified), became more prevalent in the early 2000s, it became clear these were not simply former captive animals let loose, but dispersing subadult males moving from established populations in the West (i.e., the Black Hills) into the Midwest. After all, the Midwest has plentiful cover and more prey than does much of the West in terms of abundant white-tailed deer populations, and long-distance dispersal is known to occur from studies of western cougars tracked via radiocollars.
At about that time, it also became apparent that gray wolf and black bear populations were expanding as well as Illinois began to record confirmations of those species, likely coming from Great Lakes states’ populations or even nearby Missouri (for black bears). As with cougars, most gray wolves and black bears confirmed in Illinois were males. An interesting trio of large carnivores indeed: cougars, gray wolves and black bears: oh my! But what to do about this phenomenon that had just begun to affect several midwestern states?
The phenomenon of large carnivores showing up in Illinois (yes, all three species existed here prior to 1900) provided wildlife managers with a challenge: how to manage for species that were not even recognized as “present” in Illinois, given the Illinois Wildlife Code was developed well after large carnivores had been extirpated in the state? Clearly, if numbers of these species were to increase, Illinois residents would have a lot of questions and concerns about the presence of large carnivores in an agricultural state where they had been absent for more than a century. In addition to keeping track of animal confirmations, one of the most important first questions Illinois wildlife managers had was: where is large carnivore habitat and is it enough to sustain populations? Other important questions existed about how the Illinois public felt about these species.
Given these management needs, my colleagues and I at SIU were funded in 2011 to study the potential for large carnivores in Illinois via Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Project W-163-R administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. We had two primary objectives: (1) develop habitat maps for the state and (2) survey the Illinois public regarding their attitudes and perceptions about these species. Habitat mapping was based on known relationships between large carnivore presence and habitat in other states and we adapted this knowledge to Illinois habitats. Unsurprisingly, forested areas were the key to large carnivore habitat suitability—as extensive agriculture leaves little cover for carnivores—and much suitable habitat was fragmented in Illinois.
Habitat was most suitable for gray wolves and black bears, with less than 15 percent of the state suitable for these species, but very little of that habitat was contiguous. Contiguous habitats are more likely to support breeding populations in the future. Habitat suitability for cougars covered less than 7 percent of the state, with none of that contiguous habitat. Our conclusion: “stopover habitat” for large carnivores exists in Illinois, and likely explains the occasional confirmation of a dispersing individual, but large expanses of suitable habitat to harbor growing populations are currently not plentiful.
To address our second objective, we mailed 6,000 questionnaires to the Illinois public to determine their attitudes and perceptions about large carnivores. Results indicated 40 percent were unsure about the population status of large carnivores in Illinois; of the remaining respondents, most (ranging from 20 percent for black bears to 41 percent for cougars) believed the presence of all three focal species had increased over the past decade. More residents supported protection (43 percent) and increasing numbers of large carnivores (39 percent) than opposed them (26 percent); however, support for black bears was slightly higher than for cougars and wolves. Rural residents and livestock owners were the most likely to want carnivore numbers to decrease and least likely to support their protection; higher levels of education corresponded to positive attitudes toward large carnivores. These findings were generally similar to other studies in western states, without any significant surprises, but provided valuable insight.
So, given our work and agency decisions thereafter, what is the status of large carnivores in Illinois? Despite several confirmed sightings of these species during the past decade, there is no strong evidence of breeding populations. Certainly, these animals are dispersing individuals just passing through, with enough suitable habitat, especially in forested areas or river corridors, to encourage these movements. Thanks in large part to our research, cougars, black bears and gray wolves have been protected species in Illinois since 2015 when Public Act 98-1033 was passed and signed. Whether these species continue to visit the Prairie State is almost entirely out of the control of wildlife managers in Illinois, as source populations currently originate in other states. Continued vigilance will be necessary to monitor large carnivore presence within and beyond state borders, as wildlife populations often behave unpredictably and conditions favoring their presence change.
Dr. Clay Nielsen is Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University.