Rare Visitors to Illinois
Black bears, gray wolves, and cougars (also known as mountain lions) were once common in the Midwest. As our cities, towns, and farms grew, populations of these animals declined due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Today, there are no known breeding populations of these large predators in Illinois, though occasionally individual animals will move through looking for new territory.
In recent years, there have been multiple confirmed sightings of cougars, black bears, and wolves in Illinois. However, these species are all still very rare visitors in the state.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has never released large carnivores in the state and has no plans to do so in the future. However, the agency will not act to impede the natural recolonization of these species as they expand from existing populations in other states.
All three species use similar habitats, though cougars need much more territory than bears or wolves. Research conducted at Southern Illinois University indicates that less than 15 percent of Illinois contains habitat that would support a small population of bears, wolves, or cougars. The Shawnee Forest in southern Illinois, habitat along the Illinois River in west-central Illinois, and a small swatch of land in northwest Illinois are the most likely areas where these animals would be able to establish territories. But because all three species are highly mobile and capable of traveling long distances, it is possible that traveling individuals may be observed in any part of the state.
Obviously, managing large carnivores is more complicated than managing other species of wildlife. Knowing where large carnivores travel across the state will allow wildlife managers to proactively address potential human–carnivore conflicts, and mapping available suitable habitat will help biologists prepare for the potential influence of large carnivores on prey populations, smaller predators and the landscape.
What to Do if You See a Large Carnivore
If you see a large carnivore (bear, cougar, or wolf): do not run. Running can cause the animal to chase you. If you are in a group, gather everyone together and move as a unit. Make noise to ensure that the animal is aware of your presence. These animals are not likely to attack a person unless they feel trapped or provoked. Respect the animal’s space, and do not approach the animal.
If the animal sees you, stand your ground, look as large as possible by standing up straight and putting your arms up in the air, and slowly back away. If you have food with you, drop the food and keep moving away. If possible, go inside a building or get into a vehicle. If the animal attacks, always try to fight it off. Use sticks, rocks, and any other objects available. Do not play dead.
SB3049, which took effect January 1, 2015, amended the Illinois Wildlife Code by adding black bears, cougars, and gray wolves to the list of protected species. On January 4, 2021 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the federal endangered species list for the lower 48 states. Gray wolves remain protected in Illinois as a state endangered species.
Black bears and cougars may not be hunted, killed, or harassed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. Gray wolves may not be hunted, killed, or harassed for any reason.
If you feel you or your property are being threatened by black bear, cougar, or gray wolf, contact the IDNR to learn about options available to address potential threats. The IDNR may issue a nuisance animal permit and assist you with control measures.
Report a Sighting
If you have recently seen a cougar, black bear, or gray wolf in Illinois, please report the sighting to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Reviewable evidence is very helpful during efforts to identify the animal and the location. Please provide any documentation, including original images of individual animals or tracks, that you were able to obtain. When documenting tracks or other signs, be sure to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Include in the image an object to aid in the determination of size such as a ruler, tape measure or common object of standard size (coin, paper money, business card, etc.). Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including the tracks and other local features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed.