Sierra Club backs bill to protect cougars, wolves, bears

Springfield — The Sierra Club of Illinois is publicly supporting Senate Bill 3049, which amends the Wildlife Code to add the gray wolf, American black bear, and cougar to the list of protected species in Illinois.

The legislation was filed in the Senate on Feb. 7 by Sen. Lisa Holmes, D-Aurora. It was assigned to the Agriculture and Conservation Committee on Feb. 19 and then sent to Assignments on March 21. A hearing on the legislation held March 25 resulted in being sent back to Agriculture and Conservation.

Meanwhile, those same predators are scheduled to be the topic of a panel discussion scheduled during the upcoming Illinois Conservation Congress in Springfield. “Apex Predators in Illinois: Now and in the Future” is set for 10:45 a.m. on April 12 at DNR headquarters.

Cougars, wolves and bears are not known to habitate the state, but each species has made an appearance in recent years. Wolves have been shot in northern Illinois, while black bears were found in Bureau County a few years ago.

Cougar sightings have been reported several times over the past five years, and a DNR law enforcement officer shot one on a farm in Whiteside County in November.

According to the Sierra Club of Illinois, the goal of SB 3049 is to allow DNR to “actively prepare for the time when cougars, wolves and black bears may once again establish populations in the state.

“We need large predators back as a key part of a healthy ecosystem,” the Sierra Club said in a statement. “By the mid- to late- 1800s, these native species that once roamed freely across the Prairie State had been displaced by  habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. Several species including the wolf, bear and cougar disappeared from our  state. With adequate protection, large predators can return to the Prairie State.”

Deer hunters are one group that does not support protecting cougars and wolves, which they say could treat the state’s already-suffering deer herd as a buffet.

“What purpose would those predators serve here, and why would they want to be here in the first place?” asked Bill England, who hunts in Adams County.

For its part, DNR has indicated that it is only including the predators as a discussion topic in order to prepare the state for circumstances such as the cougar incident last fall.

In a late 2013 op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, DNR Director Marc Miller noted that the Whiteside County case had generated much public discussion about the future of cougars in Illinois.

“DNR welcomes that discussion, and believes it’s equally important to talk about the possible return of other apex predators such as the gray wolf and the black bear,” Miller wrote.

He continued: “While we believe this and other recent confirmed mountain lion sightings are isolated occurrences for now, we have been actively preparing for the time when mountain lions, wolves and black bears may once again establish populations in the state. We have funded scientific research where suitable habitat models have been developed for these species, and have also researched attitudes and opinions of Illinoisans regarding these large carnivores.”

DNR supported legislation in 2011 that sought to add the cougar, wolf and bear to the list of protected species under the Illinois Wildlife Code. That proposal did not make it out of committee, but DNR  re-iterated at the time that it would look for ways to achieve protections for the animals with other conservation groups.

“We believe there is room on our Illinois landscape for apex predators, but these species also will require management as they re-establish and grow in numbers to deal with human-wildlife interactions, nuisance animals, and to keep a balance in predator-prey numbers within suitable habitat areas,” Miller wrote. “Placing the species on the protected list is a necessary step.”

Against bobcat hunting

The Sierra Club also spoke out against the bobcat hunting bill, which has been making its way through the Legislature as House Bill 4226 and is expected to pass.

“DNR offers no scientific or biological need or reason for reducing Illinois’ bobcat population,” the Sierra Club stated. “Rather than approving an ill-advised hunting season. We need large predators back as a key part of a healthy ecosystem.”

The bobcat had been listed as a protected species under the Illinois Wildlife Code. It was removed from the state’s threatened species list and has an estimated statewide population of more than 3,000 individuals. 

Proposals for a hunting and trapping season have failed the past two years.

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