'It's A Great Time To Be A Bear' - As Long As We Leave It Alone

Jun 24, 2020

Illinois is home to many animals, but bears aren't one of them. But there is one American black bear making its way through the state and it's probably a male.

Stefanie Fitzsimons is a district wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She said it's mating season for black bears and that males are the wanderers for any species.

Taken at Highway 5 and the state line of Illinois/Wisconsin in Jo Daviess County.
Credit District Wildlife Biologist Jeff Horn

"This time of year, the males get kicked out of their dens to go find their own mates and their own territories," she said. "We obviously don't have the mates for it so it is continuing its journey south."

Fitzsimons understands that some may be excited to see the bear, but its voyage to its native wilderness is "100% dependent on how people react around the bear."

She said, "The most wonderful outcome is for this bear to continue its journey without any human interaction."

She talked about an incident that took place in the village of Oquawka (pop. 1,371) over Father's Day Weekend when more than 300 people crowded the bear. 

"What happened in Henderson County was not good," she said. "The crowd was pretty much overbearing; essentially harassing it by following it, trying to take pictures of it, pinning it against fences."

Fitzsimons said the bear has not initiated any sort of conflict with humans or property, but the Henderson incident is the second known instance where humans have instigated a conflict with the bear. She said black bears are relatively timid, but the public should give it at least 100 yards of space so it may return to the wilderness without any further chance for trouble.

She said black bears are the smallest of all the bear species, but probably have the biggest population of bears in the United States. "So that's why about 40 of the states have an actual bear population."

Though Illinois is not one of those states, Fitzsimons said we have a pleasant environment for the bear right now. 

"It's a great time to be a bear because there's all sorts of berries and fresh plants coming up," she said.

Bears are omnivores which means they eat plants and animals. Fitzsimons said the bear could also be eating small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, but "At this time, it hasn't bothered any human property like trash cans or pet food or anything like that, so it's probably feasting in the [Illinois] wild right now."

Because Illinois is not home to black bears, the IDNR does not track them with a collar or chip or any other tracking device besides human eyesight. Fitzsimons said, "When things like this happen, we just tend to let it have a safe journey and we don't intervene."

In terms of tracking this bear, Fitzsimons said the IDNR is working with the Illinois chapter of the USDA Wildlife Services. 

"Our Illinois group notified me on June 5 that this black bear was still in Wisconsin -- in Monroe, Wisconsin -- and that's just north of Freeport," she said. "He came into Illinois around June 10. He entered into Jo Daviess County and started wandering towards eastern Illinois and hung around there a little bit and crossed into Iowa for a while."

Fitzsimons said, "We're pretty sure he just swam right across the Mississippi River because that's what he did when he came back into Illinois. He swam across the Mississippi at Andalusia, Illinois and that was on the 18th of June. And since then, he's just working his way south."

Fitzsimmons said incidents like this have been happening since 2008. "We've had a handful of instances where black bears have shown up this time of year." She talked about a separate sighting that took place in 2014.

"That bear kind of had a similar journey where it came down into Jo Daviess County and actually walked east towards the Rockford area and down into Freeport and the Rochelle area," she said. "And then it pretty much just wandered back up into Wisconsin."

Fitzsimons emphasized the importance of watching the bear from a distance and not throwing food or other items at it. "Black bears can run up to 35 miles per hour and climb trees even faster," she said. "If you provoke the bear enough that it feels it needs to interact with you, don't run because it will outrun you." The best thing to do is, "Kind of put yourself into a ball, put your hands over your neck, put your face into the dirt and just kind of protect those vital organs."

She said it will probably leave after it sees that you are not a threat to it. "They are kind of a timid species. They don't want to be around us any more than we want a negative interaction with them."

For more information about bear awareness, she recommends checking out the Be Bear Aware campaign. If you see a bear, please report it to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. And for more information about identifying bears and other animals, visit the Wildlife Illinois website.

In the meantime, Fitzsimons hopes the bear has a "peaceful journey."

"We don't want to intervene," she said. "The only time we do that is if it's threatening property or threatening a human being. Otherwise, if it's a rabbit all the way up to a black bear, we just want nature to take its course."