Rare wildlife in our neighborhood

If you see an elk or other wildlife rare for northeastern Illinois, let the people at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources know. Photo: fritzmb

Recently, possible cougar sightings in the northeastern Illinois area have made the news. It seems each year there are reports of unusual wildlife in the area. Although many of the sightings are cases of mistaken identity, instances of cougars or other wildlife species not normally seen in our area are not that uncommon. In 2008, a cougar was killed in an urban area of Chicago after police and animal control officials failed to capture it alive. Although the normal range for cougars is in the far west of the country, isolated sightings occur with some regularity as far east as Indiana.

Wolves, black bears and elk have been intermittently spotted in Illinois in modern times. In some cases, elk being the best example, the animals are escapees from captivity. (Cats and dogs are commonly the sources of erroneous reports on sightings of large animals, such as cougars and bears.) But in most cases, the animals belong to a species that once occupied the area. Cougars, bears and wolves were indigenous to Illinois before settlement by Europeans in the early 19th century. With settlement, many of the large animals were extirpated, either because they posed a threat to the settlers or their livestock or because of man-made changes in the environment beyond what the animals could tolerate.

Fermilab’s largely open 10-square mile campus is an opportunity for wildlife to live in a relatively natural setting, even though we’re in the middle of an intensely developed area. As we are all aware, our site is home to a large and healthy population of whitetail deer, coyotes and myriad bird species. Even the casual observer can see most of these almost daily. But what if you spot something really unusual? During the last 20 years or so, there have been several credible (albeit unsubstantiated) reports of uncommon species on the site. Virtually every year, birdwatchers are treated to a rare visitor, especially during migration.

If you do spot an unusual animal, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources wants to know! You can report unusual sightings at their website "Living with Wildlife in Illinois." At this site, you can learn more about the wildlife in Illinois, including infrequent wildlife visitors.

Rod Walton