Bears In Illinois? Not Today, But Once Upon A Time

Updated: Jan 15

If you could hop in a time machine and travel back to 1720, you would see black bears roaming around Illinois. These animals were special to the Potawatomi and other tribes that lived around the Great Lakes then (and now). January’s full moon is even sometimes called the bear moon because this is the month when bear cubs are born.

Black bears don't live in Illinois anymore, but they did centuries ago. (Photo via Shutterstock)

By the time of the Civil War, around 1865, black bears were completely gone from Illinois. Why? Some settlers killed the large mammals out of fear. They worried about their safety and property. Other people hunted bears because they could make a lot of money selling the fur.


Black Bear Spottings


We don’t have a time machine to travel back to when bears lived in Illinois, but some lucky people have seen them in Illinois somewhat recently. These bears aren’t living in Illinois full time, but they pop over from Missouri and Wisconsin from time to time to visit. Closest to us, a bear was spotted to the west in DeKalb County in the summer of 2014. The latest sighting was in southern Illinois during the summer of 2019. No one has seen a black bear in Will County — yet!


Black bears (along with mountain lions and wolves) are protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code. Don’t ever forget that they are wild animals. If you see a black bear, do not run. Make sure to make plenty of noise. You don’t want to surprise them; they are not likely to attack unless they feel trapped. Never approach them and always give them lots of space.


Big and Round: Bear ID


Black bears have short, thick legs with compact bodies and short tails. Their heads are round, and so are their short ears. Their round shape comes from the thick layer of fat under their skin and their dense, coarse hair. They usually look black or dark brown, but they can sometimes have a reddish coat. Their noses are long and often tan.


On all four paws they stand about 2 feet to 3 feet tall, but when they stand on their hind feet they reach 4 feet to 6 feet! Males are bigger, weighing 250 pounds to 350 pounds as adults. Females weigh 120 pounds to 180 pounds.


Black bears walk on the soles of their feet, just like we do. In fact, their back footprints look very much like ours. The main difference is that on top their five toes they have claws that don’t retract. These claws help them climb trees, hunt and pull bark off trees in search of yummy insects. Just because they’re big and bulky, it doesn’t make them slow. They can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour!


What’s for Dinner?


Bears are omnivores like us. And it’s a good thing they have eat a variety of foods, because most of their eating is done in only six to eight months of the year. From May to November, they enjoy berries, nuts, roots, honey, worms, leaves, fruits, twigs, insects, fish and small mammals. Imagine eating between 11 pounds and 18 pounds of food a day — that’s what bears do. In the fall, bears gorge on high-energy foods to build up fat for the winter.


Long Winter Nap


Once late fall hits, black bears find winter shelter: caves, holes in the ground, cracks in rocks or under trees. They are not true hibernators; they are what we call deep sleepers. Black bears survive winter by slowing down their heart rate a little, lowering their body temperature a little and sleeping through most of winter.


Females wake in January to give birth to two or three cubs. She stirs from sleep to nurse her cubs, tend to them and keep them warm. Black bears lose 30 percent of their body weight by the end of winter, so when spring finally thaws the snow, adults and the cubs emerge from their dens ready to feed.

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