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Our View: Bears, wolves, cougars could return to Illinois

Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

The day might come when black bear sightings such as this month’s go from being a novelty to a fact of life in northern Illinois.

State lawmakers and wildlife officials seem to be planning on it. As there’s little to stop these top-of-the-food-chain predators from making their way here, it makes sense to take steps to protect them – and us.

Managing these populations means protecting them from unregulated hunting, but it also means keeping them away from people and teaching people ways to keep them from feeling too welcome in the neighborhood.

About a week before a black bear made its way from the Rockford area into DeKalb County and then off to the west, lawmakers passed a measure that would add bears, along with mountain lions and gray wolves, to the list of protected species in Illinois.

The measure, which has been sent to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature, would make it illegal to hunt these animals unless a landowner feels their life is in jeopardy. If they are posing a nuisance that damages property, a landowner would be able to apply for a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to kill them.

All three of these predators have made a comeback in other parts of the Midwest, and all three lived around the state before hunters drove them off in the 19th century.

Gray wolves number in the thousands in their range of the timber forests of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars, have a thriving population in South Dakota and have been known to roam into Illinois. In November, a state wildlife official killed a cougar on a Whiteside County farm.

As these predators grow in number in other states, their visits to Illinois are likely to grow more frequent as younger animals search for unclaimed territory. We can coexist with these animals, which in the wild almost always show fear of humans and rarely attack unless cornered.

Northeastern Illinois might be more densely populated than other Midwestern states, but bears and people inhabit the same territory in populous areas such as New Jersey, where black bears have been sighted in all of that state’s counties.

All of these predators can pose a nuisance to farmers, however. Bears in particular can do significant damage, carving out huge “bear rolls” in cornfields. Hence, it makes sense that farmers have the ability to secure a permit to kill an animal that is stealing livestock or damaging crops.

These predator animals are part of our ecosystem, but many people never have lived alongside them, and we’d rather they not be stalking our neighborhoods threatening pets, livestock, bird feeders and trash bins.

Allowing bears, wolves and mountain lions to return is fine, so long as the public can be educated on how to live with them and their population can be kept to a level that is acceptable and safe.

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