Sighting of rare bear causes stir
District wildlife biologist has unique task of tracking its whereabouts in illinois
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’ [bebearaware.org] 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.