Sight­ing of rare bear causes stir

District wildlife bi­ol­o­gist has unique task of track­ing its where­abouts in illi­nois

Chicago Sun-Times - - OUTDOORS - dbow­man@sun­ @Bow­manout­side DALE BOW­MAN

When Ste­fanie Fitzsi­mons added wildlife dis­ease and large car­ni­vore bi­ol­o­gist to her du­ties as a district wildlife bi­ol­o­gist, she didn’t an­tic­i­pate a great change. Illi­nois doesn’t have many large non-hu­man car­ni­vores wan­der­ing around.

“When I took this job in April, I fig­ured the most dif­fi­cult task to han­dle was go­ing to be chronic wast­ing dis­ease!” emailed Fitz-si­mons, who nor­mally works wildlife du­ties in Lake, McHenry and Kane coun­ties.

Then she had to (God for­give me for typ­ing this) bear down with some un­ex­pected du­ties. A black bear wan­dered into Illi­nois and be­came an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion.

“The black bear was first spot­ted in Illi­nois on ap­prox­i­mately June 10 when it crossed over from Wis­con­sin at High­way 5 and the state line and headed to­wards East Dubuque,” she emailed. “Illi­nois DNR was first no­ti­fied of the pres­ence of the black bear near the Wis­con­sin bor­der (Mon­roe, Wis­con­sin), north of Freeport, on June 5.

“Once the bear crossed into Illi­nois on the 10th, it was only in Illi­nois for a short time and it crossed the Mis­sis­sippi River and went into Iowa. Due to con­stant con­tact be­tween Iowa and Illi­nois DNR, we know that the bear crossed the river back into Illi­nois near An­dalu­sia on June 18. It has been mov­ing south in Illi­nois since and has made ap­pear­ances in Oquawka, Stronghurs­t, Au­gusta, El Dara and, fi­nally, At­las.

“It spent a night on Clarksvill­e Is­land in the Mis­sis­sippi River, June 30 into July 1, and has now been spot­ted mov­ing south in Mis­souri.”

Illi­nois rang in the 21st cen­tury with spo­radic re­turns of the big three car­ni­vores: gray wolves, moun­tain lions and black bears. All three were na­tives ex­tir­pated.

The first con­firmed mod­ern moun­tain lion (cougar, puma) in Illi­nois was hit by a train on July 17, 2000, in Ran­dolph County.

Illi­nois’ first con­firmed mod­ern wolf was shot on Dec. 29, 2002, by coy­ote hunter Randy Worker in Mar­shall County.

A black bear wan­dered, gen­er­ally around Bureau County, in 2008, be­fore be­ing cap­tured in Fe­bru­ary 2009. It was prob­a­bly not a wild bear. In 2014, a young wild black bear wan­dered north­ern Illi­nois.

Fitzsi­mons noted, “We ac­tu­ally had a very sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in spring of 2014 (in my first months with the Wildlife Di­vi­sion), where a male black bear came down from Wis­con­sin into JoDaviess County, went to Rock­ford area and down in to Rochelle area and then back in to Wis­con­sin.”

She had good help this time.

“I did have to spend a lot of time weed­ing through sight­ing con­fir­ma­tion emails and sight­ings posted on so­cial me­dia,” she emailed. “I worked with some amaz­ing [con­ser­va­tion po­lice of­fi­cers] in our law-en­force­ment di­vi­sion who pro­vided pro­tec­tion and crowd con­trol for the bear while it was on his jour­ney through Illi­nois.”

When I asked what the usual du­ties are for a wildlife dis­ease and large car­ni­vore bi­ol­o­gist, she emailed, “Du­ties of the job en­tail man­ag­ing large car­ni­vore events (when an ac­tual large car­ni­vore is in an area of Illi­nois), co­or­di­nat­ing with USDA Wildlife Ser­vices large car­ni­vore spe­cial­ist in cases of live­stock and prop­erty dam­age from large car­ni­vores, and man­ag­ing the data­base of large car­ni­vore sight­ing. This par­tic­u­lar part of this po­si­tion doesn’t get much at­ten­tion since we don’t have breed­ing pop­u­la­tions of any of the three large car­ni­vores we pro­tect. That was un­til this year.”

Bruno, as he was dubbed, was thought to be look­ing for love.

I ask ev­ery one in Fitzsi­mon’s po­si­tion: Which of the big three may es­tab­lish a pop­u­la­tion?

“I think of all three, it’s pos­si­ble to have a small black bear pop­u­la­tion in south­ern Illi­nois in the very dis­tant fu­ture,” she an­swered. “But th­ese large car­ni­vores aren’t called large for noth­ing. They need a lot of habi­tat for breed­ing and sus­tain­ing. We don’t have enough con­tin­u­ous habi­tat for cougars or gray wolves and its very ques­tion­able for black bear.”

Whether or not bears es­tab­lish a breed­ing pop­u­la­tion, more will wan­der into Illi­nois. So I asked Fitzsi­mon’s ad­vice when the next one mo­seys in.

“We were re­ally push­ing this point when the bear was in Illi­nois and, since this won’t be the last time we have a black bear in Illi­nois, it’s worth re­peat­ing: The out­come of vis­it­ing black bear is 100 per­cent de­pen­dent on how the pub­lic re­acts around the bear,” she stressed. “If the pub­lic can fol­low the rules of the ‘Be Bear Aware’ [be­bear­] cam­paign and leave the bear alone, it will be able to con­tinue its jour­ney safely. Stay 100 yards back and let them be. Black bears are a timid species but will at­tack if pro­voked. Do not ha­rass, do not feed, do not try to take selfies with the bear. It is a wild an­i­mal and it is a pro­tected species in Illi­nois.” ✶

Fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist David Wyf­fels

emailed that the fish kill at LaSalle Lake “is re­lated to in­creased cool­ing pond tem­per­a­tures due to the high air temps and lack of wind not dis­solved oxy­gen is­sues on the main lake.” Hard­est hit was the boat launch, which “is cooler than the cool­ing loop (main lake) and many fish are con­gre­gat­ing in that area try­ing to get into cooler wa­ter. Prob­lem is that the boat launch area is out­side the cool­ing loop (lit­tle to no cir­cu­la­tion) and had lower dis­solved oxy­gen.”


Ste­fanie Fitzsi­mons, check­ing in a deer last year in McHenry County in her reg­u­lar du­ties as a district wildlife bi­ol­o­gist, hasn’t dealt with a bear sight­ing since 2014.


The black bear that wan­dered through north­west Illi­nois last month be­came an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion. It has since been spot­ted roam­ing down­state.

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