Wild Campfire Stories

Is there any truth to those tales about lions and tigers and bears in Illinois?

Ask any outdoorsman: When it comes to good stories, honest facts should never get in the way. After all, does it really matter if that mythical fish that snapped your line didn’t actually weigh 200 pounds? It sure made for a good story.          

And a good story is all that matters. An editor once pointed out to William Faulkner there was a factual inconsistency in one of Faulkner’s stories. The Nobel Prize-winning author responded by pointing out stories were more important than literal truth.          

Faulkner was right. Nobody wants to hear a tale about a tiny fish that got away. Or a skinny, dim-witted buck without antlers. Audiences demand drama—especially outdoorsmen. So when it comes to campfire stories—those ultimate outdoor tales told by flickering flames—the importance of verifiable facts drifts away like so many sparks in the night.          

In the wilds of Illinois, one favorite topic around a campfire involves the suggestion bears and wolves and mountain lions might still exist in Illinois.          

Maybe you’ve heard the stories, and wondered: “Could they possibly be true?” Everybody swears they’re true. Well, some people anyway. The problem is, the people who disagree tend to be wildlife biologists and researchers, and their judgement carries a certain, well, credibility.          

So, is there any truth in those stories?          

From a scientific wildlife management standpoint, the simple answer is no.          

No longer are there populations of bears, mountain lions and wolves in Illinois. But that’s not to say individual examples of these long-vanished species won’t occasionally appear in Illinois.          

But more about that in a moment.          

It’s helpful here to understand the recent natural history of Illinois. As recently as 1800, humans living in this part of North America could have legitimately encountered wild bison, elk, black bears, wolves and cougars. But rather quickly, following European settlement of the region, the large mammals vanished, and by the mid-to-late 1800s none of those creatures could be found in Illinois.          

Nonetheless, tales of sightings of certain wildlife persisted (especially those species provoking favorable campfire drama). The average storyteller had a plausible argument: If an animal such as a cougar or wolf is secretive by nature, who’s to say there aren’t a few still out there?           

Nobody sitting around a campfire today would suggest a population of bison might somehow have escaped detection for more than 200 years. Nor would anybody claim an undiscovered elk is miraculously hiding in the forest preserves of Cook County.          

But what about those cougars and wolves? Or bears? Is it remotely possible populations of those big predators have somehow been overlooked for generations in Illinois?          

Those who’ve spent years studying Illinois wildlife have a quick answer.          

“I would bet my house we don’t have a viable population of cougars in Illinois,” one retired state wildlife biologist said. “But I wouldn’t bet my house there aren’t one or two cougars out there that might turn up once in a while.”          

What’s the difference?          

The fact is, exotic animals do occur in Illinois. Everything from pythons to piranhas to chimpanzees are considered exotics and they’re all living in Illinois—usually in a cage. But sometimes animals escape captivity. And when one of those animals happens to be a species formerly native to Illinois (such as a bear or cougar), people naturally jump to conclusions.          

The majority of large, exotic animals that turn up in the wild probably were captive animals that were released illegally or escaped. That’s obvious when a zebra shows up browsing on someone’s lawn. But it’s less obvious when the animal is a once-native species, such as the tame black bear that strolled through southeastern Illinois last summer. Or another bear that wandered close to Mt. Vernon a few years earlier.          

Another source of unusual animal sightings comes from the fact animals simply don’t recognize state borders.          

Timber wolves no longer are present in Illinois—yet one did turn up near Peoria in 2002. Genetic testing on that wolf revealed it was from northern Wisconsin or Michigan. But that wasn’t an isolated case. A similar northwoods wolf made it into Missouri in 2001. Another was found in Indiana—complete with a research radio-transmitter collar.          

Mountain lions have legs, too. Although it’s a long haul for a wandering mountain lion to make it into Illinois, animals do wander, and the dead mountain lion discovered along railroad tracks in southwest Illinois a few years ago might actually have been wild.          

A necropsy examination of that cat offered no conclusive evidence either way.          

Which begs the question: If one or two exotic animals turn up in Illinois, doesn’t that mean they exist here?          

Wildlife biologists explain there’s a key difference between a stray animal and a viable population. If, for example, a zookeeper leaves a gate open and a giraffe wanders out of a zoo, that doesn’t mean there’s suddenly a viable population of giraffes in Illinois. No sensible person would draw that conclusion.

In order for a population to be self-sustaining, it must have enough individuals to ensure genetic diversity and the ability to replenish the population after natural mortality factors are considered.          

“All it takes is one male and one female to have a breeding population,” noted the late Dr. Alan Woolf, former director of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. But a truly viable population is another matter.          

“Minimum viable population sizes are usually determined by computer programs that use reproductive rates, mortality rates, and other population parameters as input variables and then determine probability of a population of a given size surviving for ‘X’ number of years,” Woolf explained.          

True, these scientific explanations don’t sound very interesting around a campfire. And for those audiences, Woolf adds a tantalizing, yet equally scientific proposal:          

“Can a viable population be so small that is defies detection?” the researcher pondered. “Maybe, but I would be very surprised.”          

Woolf was quick to explain why such a scenario conflicts with statistical odds. Using the example of bobcats in Illinois (Woolf is an authority on bobcats in the Prairie State), he explained how even small, seldom-seen populations of wildlife still provide evidence of their existence.          

“There was a viable population of bobcats in Illinois 25 yrs ago, but they were scarce and few people knew of their presence,” Woolf said. “However, they were sighted occasionally and an occasional roadkill or accidental capture (in a trap) provided ‘hard evidence’ of their existence.”          

Cougars, he said, haven’t left similar evidence.          

“If we had an established population of cougars (note I skipped the word viable), I would expect more evidence than the single necropsy I performed several years ago,” Woolf said.          

OK, what about bears?          

The fact is, there actually were a few released black bears strolling around Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1960s. Locals would spot them in the woods, on the road, or pawing around in their pastures. But those few bears didn’t survive. At least one was killed on the road after it lingered too long around a pile of candy locals had placed there for a bear-watching attraction. Others vanished when they began to meddle with local livestock.          

Additionally, a bear sighting is reported every few years in Illinois, but in every case the bear turned out to be relatively tame. As for the notion wildlife managers have secret plots to release large, exotic mammals without public knowledge?          

The myth is so persistent, wildlife officials concede they’re outnumbered by all of those campfire storytellers. Despite the fact there is no secret cougar-bear-wolf release program in Illinois, convincing campfire storytellers otherwise probably won’t happen anytime soon.          

After all, what really matters beyond a good story? 
By: Joe McFarland