Is that a bear in that trail cam photo? If so, it would be first confirmation of bear in southern Illinois

This trail camera photo taken on Sept. 12 in Union County is being studied by DNR to determine if the subject in the image’s upper right corner is a black bear or another type of animal. (Photo provided)

Anna, Ill. — Doug Dufford has studied the trail camera photo and he’s passed it before the eyes of dozens of other wildlife biologists and bear experts.

Yet nobody is ready to confirm that the image taken on Sept. 12 in Union County is a black bear.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Dufford, DNR’s point man on large predators, said on Sept. 26. “If we were to confirm this, it would be the first confirmation of a black bear in southern Illinois. So we are looking at the case closely and we are sharing the photo with a lot of experienced people. So far, the responses have been consistent: nobody can say for sure.”

The unidentified man who owns the trail camera does not live in Union County but owns hunting property there. He sets up 15 to 20 cameras each year and regularly studies various animals that make appearances on his land.

In a phone interview with Illinois Outdoor News, the camera owner explained that he was breezing through the Sept. 12 images when something caught his eye.

“It was like ‘ding, ding, ding’ what is that?” he said. “The picture is kind of distant and a little fuzzy, but to me it looked like a bear.”

The man began circulating the trail camera photo, seeking opinions. He called local CPO Steve Vasicek for a look. Then he took the photo to a veterinarian for an opinion. A taxidermist he contacted had worked on more than 70 bears in his career.

“About 90 percent of the people I showed the picture to said ‘bear’ and that was pretty convincing,” he said.

Eventually he got a call from DNR seeking information, and that’s where Dufford came in.

“It’s not a classic bear picture, the ears are way too big for the head and it does not seem muscular enough for an adult black bear,” Dufford said. “One possible scenario is that it is a young bear, which, if that is true, enters the reproduction aspect of it, and that would be a whole new level of discovery.”

Dufford said DNR has asked the trail camera owner to provide a few things to help investigation of the case move forward. A shot from the same camera of a human positioned in the same spot as the bear would help better estimate the animal’s size, Dufford explained.

Meanwhile, the trail camera image submitted to DNR will continue to be studied.

Dufford isn’t ready to dismiss the possibility of a black bear in southern Illinois.

“A confirmation would be significant, but we have stated in the past that we fully expect one to show up, so it would not be a stretch,” he said.

If it is indeed a black bear, its origin is likely southern Illinois’ neighbor to the west. Dufford said there have been confirmed black bear sightings within 15 miles of the Mississippi River.

“We are confident the first one here will be a Missouri bear,” he said. “A black bear can swim across the river. However it crosses the river, we expect it to happen, if it hasn’t already. The black bears we’ve had as visitors in northern Illinois the past few years were linked to Wisconsin, Iowa, and perhaps even Minnesota. At the bottom of Illinois, Missouri is the obvious link.”

Preparing Illinois residents

Along with Missouri, neighboring states like Iowa have recognized the fact that bears are moving in.

“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.”

A black bear’s presence is often the result of it being driven out of its territory.

“Most of the time, they will make their way through the surrounding states, but they don’t usually stay for too long,” Evelsizer said.

Dufford has said that established breeding pairs for black bears have been recorded in Wisconsin and Minnesota. While confirmed breeding pairs of these animals have been trending southward, none have been reported in Illinois.

So if one arrives, what are the consequences? Evelsizer noted that black bears can become pests.

“They will eat just about anything, so they are known to get into people’s trash cans or into someone’s beehives,” he said. “They have a habit of getting themselves into trouble that way and people really aren’t used to it.”

Black bears even have been recorded going onto farmland and eating crops.

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.

Meanwhile, Illinois wildlife officials have spent the past few years warning that bears and other large predators are expected to eventually wander into the Land of Lincoln.

The University of Illinois extension service created a website educating people on why they might be experiencing more encounters with black bears, cougars and wolves.

While there have been no confirmed sightings of a black bear in southern Illinois, there have been occasional spottings in northern Illinois since 2009.

In 2014, there were at least eight reports of a male black bear cub in western Illinois. The first was near a backyard bird feeder outside Galena. From there, the cub has roamed Winnebago and DeKalb counties, and was spotted headed west near the DeKalb and Ogle county lines.

Black bears were common in Illinois in the late 1600s but disappeared by 1870, mostly due to hunting, according to the DNR.

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