Parts of the Midwest seeing a resurgence of predator animals
DUBUQUE, Iowa — Hundreds of years ago, the black bear, bobcat and gray wolf were native to the entirety of the Midwest.
They were among the dominant predators of the land, but with human expansion west in the 1800s, the tables turned for these animals.
Widely considered pests, they and other predators were nearly wiped out from the region as hunting greatly reduced their numbers and agriculture wiped out much of their habitat.
Today, animals such as the black bear are strangers to almost every Iowan, but that might change in the near future.
“We’re starting to see animals like the black bear on a regular basis,” said Vince Evelsizer, a furbearer biologist with the Iowa DNR. “It’s a mind-blower. It’s something that many of us haven’t grown up with.”
The bears aren’t the only ones. Bobcats, gray wolves and mountain lions are among the predators that are expanding into Midwest territory they have not inhabited in years.
“All of these species are having a resurgence and are starting to establish themselves in new territories,” said Doug Dufford, wildlife disease program manager for the Illinois DNR. “We have to be mindful of the potential of where they could go.”
However, while the sightings of gray wolves, black bears and mountain lions have been on the rise in Iowa and Illinois in the past 10 years, this does not mean that these animals are living in the states.
Dufford told the Telegraph Herald that established breeding pairs for black bears and gray wolves have been recorded in Wisconsin and Minnesota. While confirmed breeding pairs of these animals have been trending southward, none have been reported in Iowa or Illinois.
If a black bear, gray wolf or mountain lion is spotted in Iowa, that animal’s presence is often the result of it being driven out of its usual territory during mating season. And with the growing population, many younger black bears, gray wolves and mountain lions are forced out to make room for cubs.
“Most of the time, they will make their way through the surrounding states, but they don’t usually stay for too long,” Evelsizer said.
As the populations grow, the number of them spotted in Iowa and Illinois increases as well.
“They’re not breeding here, but we’re definitely expecting to see more and more as time goes on,” Dufford said. “We’re seeing spottings of them becoming more regular.”
The question then is if these predator species will ever re-establish themselves in states such as Iowa and Illinois. Evelsizer said the answer is different for each species.
Bobcats have come a long way in Iowa. They were still considered an endangered species in the state in 2000, but by 2007, the population had grown to the point that limited hunting started to be allowed.
“Bobcats have really been in expansion mode,” Evelsizer said. “They’re having a lot of success in Iowa.”
The Iowa DNR allows hunting for bobcats in areas where their populations have reached adequate levels – primarily in the southern third of the state.
As the bobcat population continues to grow, Evelsizer said, hunting is expected to be expanded to numerous other counties. Jackson County is one of the more recent areas under consideration.
“Their population is looking really strong there right now,” Evelsizer said. “We know that they are in other counties like Dubuque and Clayton, but we need to wait longer to let that population settle first.”
This past winter marked the fourth in which statewide hunting of bobcats was allowed in Wisconsin, due to the growing population.
Bobcat hunting has been allowed in parts of Illinois for the past two winters. During the recently concluded hunting and trapping season, six of the animals were killed in Jo Daviess County.
Hit and miss with black bears
Officials estimate there are 12,000 to 15,000 black bears in Minnesota – mainly in the state’s northern third – and about 29,000 in Wisconsin.
The latter state has seen significant growth over the past three decades, as the bear population in 1989 was estimated to be about 9,000. The animal used to be isolated to areas of northern Wisconsin, but it recently has started expanding southward.
Still, no breeding pairs are known to reside in Illinois or Iowa.
Evelsizer said it is unknown if black bears will start breeding in Iowa, but he believes that it is likely.
“Black bears will eat just about anything, so they are definitely capable of sustaining themselves here,” he said. “I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing black bear cubs in the state in the next five years.”
He said wooded areas along the Mississippi River could sustain the bears’ expansion southward.
Jim Jansen, northeast Iowa wildlife supervisor for the Iowa DNR, said the black bear presence has been steadily increasing in this part of the state. But adapting to the environment has been a challenge.
“A lot of the black bears that make their way here are getting hit by cars,” Jansen said. “We have a lot of roads in Iowa, and it seems like that’s posing a challenge for them.”
However, Evelsizer said he is optimistic in the black bear population’s ability to establish itself in Iowa.
“I want to say that it seems likely,” Evelsizer said. “Black bears could be native to Iowa again. That’s a really interesting thought.”
Not crying wolf just yet
For the gray wolf, the future is more uncertain. It is on the federal endangered species list.
In the spring of 2017, the gray wolf population in Wisconsin was about 950, according to the state DNR.
Dufford said gray wolves are establishing themselves increasingly southward from northern and central Wisconsin, with a wolf pack being identified as far south as a few miles north of Beloit, which sits on the state’s border with Illinois.
While the number of wolves wandering into Illinois has increased over the years, Dufford said it is uncertain whether they will call that state home soon.
“A mated pair actually establishing itself in Illinois is really hard to predict,” Dufford said. “There are a lot of hurdles they would need to get across.”
The primary challenge is suitable habitat. Dufford said only about 14 percent of the land in Illinois is habitable for wolves.
Evelsizer said that wolves, more so than black bears, require much larger expanses of wooded land in order to establish themselves – something Iowa and Illinois have little of.
“Wolves are even more secretive than bears,” he said. “They don’t like human interaction, which makes it much harder for them to establish in a place like Iowa.”
However, while Evelsizer said it seems unlikely wolves will move to re-establish themselves in Iowa, he noted that their current southward expansion is already going against preconceptions of wolf behavior.
“They were thought to be a north-woods animal, so it’s surprising that they are heading south the way they are,” he said. “I guess what I’m saying is that you never know what could happen.”
Dufford said he believes the wolves could establish themselves in Illinois, although he noted that it would take many decades.
“We’re definitely going to be seeing more of them as time goes on, so that possibility of them becoming established is there,” he said.
Mountain lions remain a mystery
Evelsizer said mountain lions are in a similar situation as wolves.
Although the species has seen an expansion from South Dakota into Nebraska, the possibility of a mating pair establishing itself in Iowa seems unlikely. Just a handful of mountain-lion kills have been recorded in the state, and many people who report seeing mountain lions actually have seen bobcats.
“They are definitely on the move, but they are less likely to get a settled population here,” Evelsizer said. “They’re like wolves in that they need a lot of suitable habitat that is removed from human interaction.”
However, Dufford said mountain lions are capable of traveling great distances from their original breeding grounds, which has led to many of them wandering into Illinois and Wisconsin and even farther.
“We’ve tracked a mountain lion going as far as some of the East Coast states,” Dufford said. “They are known to really wander great distances.”
But no breeding pairs are known to exist in Illinois or Wisconsin, either.
Regardless of whether these animals establish themselves in other states, Evelsizer emphasized that their presence in the Midwest is expected to become more prominent as their populations continue to increase and more younger animals are forced to wander during mating season.
That increased presence throughout the tri-states most likely will have a positive effect on nature, according to Evelsizer.
“It’s essentially adding some competition to the food chain,” he said. “There’s going to be more predators where there hasn’t been for a while.”
This could impact the populations of several mammal species, including deer and rabbits.
“They really can help us manage other animal populations,” said Stanley Solomon, energy and environmental educator for University of Illinois Extension. “They generally do a good job of balancing out the environment, which is a good thing.”
The coyote factor
Also potentially impacted? An animal that has been the dominant predator in some areas – the coyote.
“They’re the only kind of sizable predator that has expanded their range since the predator eradication programs began in the 1800s,” said naturalist Kenny Slocum, of Clayton County Conservation. “Even since we’ve done away with those, a lot of the big predators haven’t really expanded their range too much, except coyotes.
“They’re the only ones, and that’s because they do very well cohabitating with humans. They eat a lot of smaller prey animals – rodents, rabbits, stuff like that. Things that the wolf does not prefer or the cougar does not prefer,” Evelsizer said. “They have pretty much been the top, uncontested predator for the past few decades since they were the only ones that weren’t wiped out. Since they are not the kings anymore, they are expected to be impacted in some way.”
That could lead to fewer coyotes, although Evelsizer noted there is a reason the animals have continued to thrive when other predators did not.
“They are extremely resilient animals that can live in just about any condition,” he said. “I think there will be an impact, but it’s not going to be a threat to them by any means. Humans can hunt them the entire year, and they still are doing fine.”
Living with predator animals
All of the experts with the DNR stressed that these predators are solitary animals that generally avoid human contact.
“These are animals that really try to avoid people as much as they can,” Solomon said. “Even when they are here, most people aren’t aware of it.”
Evelsizer said people in rural areas are only slightly more likely to have direct contact with these predators, although the chances are still low.
“I think people get this idea when they hear there is a bear in the woods that they can’t go hiking on a trail, but that isn’t true at all,” he said. “These animals are going to keep their distance from you.”
He noted that such animals can become pests. Black bears in particular, he said, are likely to be an annoyance.
“They will eat just about anything, so they are known to get into people’s trash cans or into someone’s beehives,” Evelsizer said. “They have a habit of getting themselves into trouble that way and people here really aren’t used to it.”
Black bears even have been recorded going onto farmland and eating crops. While rare, farmers might need to contend with livestock depredation as some wandering wolves or mountain lions might target cows.
Dufford said part of his job is to inform farmers of the rising presence of large predators and how to prepare for them. He stressed that an occurrence like livestock depredation is rare.
“(Farmers) just need to be ready for what could happen,” Dufford said. “We don’t want people seeing a bear or wolf and then overreacting in any way.”
Geneva Pomerening said there is the occasional black bear sighting in the fields on her farm in southern Crawford County, Wisconsin.
“It doesn’t happen too often, but we’ve seen them,” she said. “As far as we know, they aren’t hurting anything.”
Jim Steiger, owner of Rolling S Farms in Bagley, Wis., said he has spotted a wolf on his farm before and occasionally stumbles upon tracks, but that the animals have never caused any trouble.
“It seems like they’re just passing through for the most part,” he said.
Evelsizer said he believes the success of these animals’ increasing spread will partially be determined by the willingness of humans to accept them. While some might see them as a pest, he hopes that the general population welcomes their re-emergence.
“I think the question really revolves around if we are going to be willing to welcome them back into our environment,” he said.