Wolves, Bears, Elk Were Once Common Across Illinois

Updated: Aug 6

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my? Maybe in some parts of the world, but not in Illinois. The mammals that live here are a little more tame than the threesome made famous by the film “The Wizard of Oz.”

Black bears used to live in Illinois. (Photo via Shutterstock)

When we think about the mammals that live nearby, deer probably come to mind, and rabbits too. Take a moment and you can probably think of several more: squirrels and chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, and maybe opossums and moles.


However, a couple of hundred years ago, the animals that populated our lands included many that are quite different than what we are used to today. And they may even have included lions and tigers and bears.


As land use in Illinois changed, so did the plants and animals that live here. Prairies and forests were replaced with agricultural fields, and with that change, some animals moved to areas with more suitable habitat. Others were hunted or driven away. Here’s a closer look at some of the animals that are now gone from Illinois but lived here in the past.


Bison


We do have bison living in Illinois today, but only in managed herds that are part of conservation programs at places like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington and Fermilab in Batavia. However, prior to 1800, an estimated 30 million to 100 million freely roamed the United States, including in Illinois.


Bison populations across the United States fell drastically, with millions of the animals killed, many by the U.S. government as part of an effort to destroy the livelihood of Native tribes across the Great Plains. In Illinois, bison roamed the land from the late 17th century until the early 19th century. They disappeared from the state by 1820 as a result of intensive hunting.


Today, the bison population in the United States is estimated at between 400,000 and 500,000, but the majority of these are livestock. The bison living in places like Midewin are part of about 30,000 bison living on public and private lands as part of conservation efforts.


Black bears


In Illinois, when we think about black bears, we probably think of the zoo. After all, bears are not a part of the landscape here in our state. However, black bears used to be quite common here and elsewhere in the Midwest, although they were eliminated from Illinois by 1870.


Bears disappeared from areas like Illinois and Indiana because of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, although they do still live in some adjacent states. Today, black bears mostly inhabit forested areas. They don’t generally live in open areas, which helps explain their absence in Illinois.


Black bears occasionally stray into Illinois from neighboring states like Wisconsin and Missouri, but when they do their time here is brief. Since 2008, black bear sightings have been confirmed in Illinois six times.


Cougars


Illinois was once part of the cougar’s normal range, but they have been absent from the state since 1870, mainly because of hunting and habitat loss. In many places, cougars were hunted because of the perceived threat to livestock.


North American cougars, also called mountain lions and pumas, have the greatest range of any mammal living in the Americas, living as far north as Canada’s Yukon and as far south as Chile. They can live in just about any habitat as long as they can find adequate shelter and prey.


Cougars can be confused with bobcats and domestic dogs, but cougars are much larger than all these animals, weighing between 75 pounds and 240 pounds and standing between 27 inches and 31 inches tall at the shoulder. Compare that to the bobcat, which typically weighs between 10 pounds and 40 pounds and stands between 20 inches and 23 inches tall.


Elk


When we think of elk, we think of the Rocky Mountains, and that is where these animals are now concentrated in the United States. However, they once lived across much of the country before being hunted and driven west to less populated areas.


Elk disappeared from Illinois by the early 1800s, and they have remained absent since that time. Elk sightings in the state are mainly from escaped elk owned by private landowners. No wild populations of the animal have existed here since the 1800s.


Elk, also called wapiti and red deer, are related to white-tailed deer, but they are much larger. They can weigh between 325 pounds and 1,100 pounds, and males are much larger than females. For comparison, white-tailed deer typically weigh between 100 pounds and 300 pounds.


Today, elk are mainly concentrated in the western United States, from the Eastern Rockies and as far north as Canada and south into New Mexico. There is also a small population of elk living in a small northern region of Michigan’s lower peninsula and in a few other locations in the eastern United States. These populations in the eastern United States are from transplanted elk from the west.


Gray wolf


Gray wolves once lived across Illinois and almost all of the United States, but today their range is limited to just a few areas in the United States, including parts of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan and northeast Oregon.


Wolf populations suffered in the United States when their prey — bison, deer, elk and moose — were mostly eliminated by settlers as they moved west across the country. With prey scarce, wolves began to hunt sheep and other livestock. In turn, ranchers and government agencies offered bounty programs for the wolves, paying for them to be killed.


Coyotes are often mistaken for wolves, particularly in winter when coyotes look bigger because of their thicker fur coats. The two animals can appear similar at first glance, but wolves are quite a bit larger than coyotes, standing about 2½ feet tall and 5 feet to 6 feet long, compared to 1½ feet tall and about 4 feet long for coyotes. Gray wolves usually weigh between 80 pounds and 120 pounds, while coyotes weigh only 20 pounds to 50 pounds.


The gray wolf is listed on Illinois’ endangered species list. However, in 2020, it was removed from the United States’ endangered species list after its population was deemed to have been successfully recovered.


While wolves no longer are considered part of Illinois’ wildlife, they are occasionally spotted in the state. Since 2002, the state has confirmed several wolves in Illinois, usually after they are hit by a car or shot by a coyote hunter.


Porcupine


North American porcupines lived in the northern part of Illinois up until the 1800s, but as large forests were cut down to make way for agricultural fields porcupines disappeared from the state. Today, porcupines continue to live in the northern part of the Great Lakes region, as well as in the western United States and parts of the northeast.


When they lived in Illinois, porcupines inhabited deciduous forests, and they still do live in these types of forests elsewhere in their range. They also can live in open tundra and desert climates.


Porcupines are most well-known for their quills, which serve as an effective defense mechanism against predators. However, they cannot shoot or throw their quills at predators, as is commonly thought. Instead, because the quills are only loosely attached, they easily separate when they come into contact with predators.

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