Illinois Lawmakers Prepare for Black Bears, Wolves, and Mountain Lions to Make Their Return to the Prairie State

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The following is a guest blog by NRDC wildlife attorney, Rebecca Riley:

Illinois is seeing an amazing wildlife resurgence, with wolves, black bears, and mountains lions returning to our state after a decades-long absence. The trouble is, because these predators have been gone for so long, we don’t have rules in place to protect them.  

Today, the Illinois Senate Agriculture Committee took an important step towards correcting that problem by voting 6-0* in favor of a bill to add wolves, black bears, and mountain lions to the Illinois Wildlife Code. NRDC has been working with the Department of Natural Resources, Senator Linda Holmes, and other conservation groups to pass this bill in order to protect native predators as they return to their historic habitat.

None of these animals have established a population in the state, but that could be just around the corner, especially if we put protections in place. Gray wolves were almost extinct in the lower-48 states forty years ago, but now almost 4,000 wolves live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan thanks to federal protections. These wolves have ventured south of the Wisconsin border into northwestern Illinois on several occasions, and are likely to continue doing so as they expand their territory. Black bear populations are well-established in Wisconsin and Missouri, and Illinois residents have spotted at least two bears here since 2000. Mountain lions have healthy populations in South Dakota, and male mountain lions often migrate to other states, including Illinois, in search of unclaimed territory.

Under current Illinois law, wolves, black bears, and mountain lions are completely unprotected. That means, anyone can shoot these animals at any time, no questions asked. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened last fall when a mountain lion journeyed from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Illinois, most likely in search of a mate. The animal caused no apparent trouble on its trek, but when it got to Illinois, a farmer contacted the authorities who shot and killed the big cat. And it’s not the first time this has happened. Since 2002, we have killed four cougars in Illinois.

Senate Bill 3049, if enacted, would put a stop to this free-for-all, by listing these native predators under the state’s Wildlife Code. Almost every mammal in the state, including predators like bobcats and coyotes, is already regulated under the Wildlife Code. Adding wolves, black bears, and mountain lions now that they are coming back to Illinois is just common sense. Under the proposed law passed today, , citizens will be able to protect themselves in the rare instance that an animal causes trouble either to them or their property, but they will not be able to shoot these animals for no reason. Today’s committee vote was the first step in making this common-sense solution the law and protecting these native predators as they attempt to return to their former range.

As the Chicago Tribune said in their editorial this past fall: “Wild animals roam this state. Always have and, we hope, always will. As we urged here in 2008: The same Illinois that was unprepared for the last cougar had better get ready for the next. He's probably en route.”

* two "present" votes.


Cougar in Wildlife Prairie Park image by Dan Dzurisin via Flickr