Larger animals hearing call of the wild in Illinois

(MCT) — Coyotes took some getting used to as their numbers grew in the Chicago area and people grudgingly learned to accept an animal that still seems just a little too wild for suburban streets.

Now, wildlife experts are predicting bigger animals — bears, cougars and even wolves — may be at the gate and ready to test the limits of just how much wildlife people in a metropolitan area will tolerate in their backyards.

All three species are well-established in neighboring states, and their territorial nature means their numbers and range are likely to grow as they search for food and other necessities, said Stan Gehrt, who studied coyotes in the Chicago area for 12 years.

"Coyotes forced people in communities to start addressing the issue of larger predators," said Gehrt, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University. "Society will determine what their level of acceptance is going to be and they'll draw the lines."

There have been several recent cougar sightings in the northern suburbs, though none has been confirmed. In 2008, however, one of the big cats was shot by police in an alley on Chicago's North Side.

Bears and wolves have also made their way into Illinois in the past decade or so. According to a recently completed survey by the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, seven gray wolves, three cougars and two black bears have been spotted in Illinois since 2000.

Wolves travel south from Wisconsin, where they are well-established, and black bears live in Wisconsin and Missouri. Cougars found in Illinois can be traced to the Black Hills in South Dakota, wildlife experts said.

Coyotes have for years been common around Chicago but still don't always fit in so well. A pack of six coyotes killed a 15-month-old Yorkshire terrier that belonged to Sue Reid's daughter in the family's Wheaton backyard in late September, Reid said.

Reid said she hasn't allowed her 13-year-old daughter, Kendall, to play in their backyard since the attack, which also left the family's second dog badly injured.

"She has not been out of this house without one of us since it happened," Reid said. "I believe animals have a right to live. I just think there's something that needs to be done so that they don't kill an animal."

Successful conservation efforts and strict hunting regulations in nearby states have allowed species such as the gray wolf to rebound from near extinction, said Eric Hellgren, director of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab at SIU.

Last year, the Obama administration removed gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the federal endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 782 gray wolves in Wisconsin in 2010, compared with just 83 in 1985, and the state's first modern-era wolf hunt will begin Oct. 15.

Illinois still classifies gray wolves as a threatened species, which makes them illegal to kill. Black bears and cougars, also known as mountain lions, aren't protected by the state.

"If humans don't kill these animals, they're going to be around," Hellgren said. "A lot of their presence has to do with increased human tolerance."

While predicting that larger carnivores will inevitably make their way to the Chicago area, Gehrt acknowledged that few would adapt to urban life as well as coyotes have over the past two decades.

Coyotes aren't simply getting by in Chicagoland, they're thriving. Gehrt conservatively estimates the area's population at 2,000, a huge jump from the few dozen that he estimates lived here in the 1990s.

Urban coyote pups are five times more likely to survive than rural pups, which explains their rapid population growth around Chicago, Gehrt said.

Wildlife control expert Robert Erickson has trapped coyotes for 35 years and said the animals have found a permanent home in the city and suburbs.

"They've adapted so well to suburbia that they're not afraid of anything," he said. "Once they become habituated, that's when you have problems."

The population of coyotes in the Chicago area may be at its peak, based on falling reproduction rates and delayed reproductive maturity of pups, Gehrt said.

"We don't know what the top level of their population is going to be, but we're seeing signs that we're getting close," he said.

It remains to be seen how well other big carnivores will fit in. While the recent cougar sightings have alarmed some residents, Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, stressed that none of those sightings has been confirmed. He also said people shouldn't be too worried if some bigger animals start making a home here.

"Some of those species are quite common in other parts of the U.S.," he said. "People seem to get along just fine."