Black bears effectively disappeared from Illinois in the late 1860s, but residents are now reporting sightings of a young male wandering across the western stretches of the state. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced last week that there are no plans to capture the animal, although homeowners were advised to secure their trash bins and keep pet food inside for the time being.

“The recent sighting of an American black bear in northwest Illinois has, understandably, generated many questions,” the DNR stated. “While these animals once roamed the Illinois landscape 150 years ago, seeing one today can be, at the very least, a startling sight. While the black bear sighted most recently has shown no aggressive behavior towards humans, it should not be approached. Help us keep this bear from being accustomed to people. Always observe wildlife from a distance.”

The Chicago Tribune reported that eight sightings of what is believed to be the same young male place the animal near the DeKalb and Ogle county lines. It was first discovered on May 24 and last seen on June 13. Wildlife officials believe the bear was recently separated from its mother and is now searching for a place of its own.

“The chance of (a black bear) coming to Illinois from time to time seems to be coming a little more frequent, although (it) is still a really rare thing,” DNR spokesperson Chris Young told the Tribune. “We’re trying to get ahead of that and start the public conversation and see what it is the public wants.”

The young bear is believed to have crossed over into Illinois from Wisconsin, which boasts an expanding bear population. It is not the first time a black bear has been sighted in recent years—a 200-pound male was captured in Bureau County five years ago—but it is generating discussion on how the state would handle a resurgent bear population. Some DNR officials say they expect more bears to enter the state in coming years, especially from Wisconsin or Minnesota. The species is not currently protected under state law, but that is about to change. Governor Pat Quinn recently signed legislation that will add black bears, mountain lions, and gray wolves to the state’s list of protected wildlife, but the law will not take effect until 2015. The state is now seeking public comment on whether or not Illinois residents would welcome the black bear’s return.

“What I perceive is that people in general like these carnivores, they like the idea of having them in the state […] but there’s still that ‘not in my backyard’ attitude because people perceive them as dangerous,” said wildlife researcher Julia Smith, who recently conducted a poll of homeowners’ opinions on large predators.

Public opinion will play a large part in the state’s management of black bears should the animals begin breeding in Illinois. In the meantime, officials warn residents that bears can still be dangerous creatures and should never be familiarized with humans.

Image from Luca Galuzzi on the Wikimedia Creative Commons

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