Illinois has added the black bear, gray wolf and cougar to its list of protected species under the state's wildlife code, giving the three animals at least the same rights as the common squirrel and lowly opossum.
Bears, cougars and wolves are all "apex predators" — a name given to those at the top of their food chain — that are making a slow but sure comeback in Illinois. They've rarely been seen in these parts for years, and no rules existed on how to handle them until this week, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill offering them protective status.
Environmentalists cheered the news. The law takes effect Jan. 1.
"We haven't had populations in the state for quite some time," said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, based in Springfield. "With the protections that are in there, it will stop people from being able to shoot the animals for no reason."
Farmers were assured during negotiations that the law still allows them to defend themselves if threatened by one of the predators, officials said. But they might think twice before killing an animal that could be just passing through, some said. Landowners must apply for a nuisance license if there is no immediate danger.
"You can't kill them unless you have good reason," said Rebecca Riley, a Chicago lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have to strike a balance so farmers can protect their livestock and promote safety, and this law does that."
One of the three predators — the gray wolf — is already protected under the federal endangered species list, but only in some areas.
The gray wolf was removed from the endangered list in the northern Midwest states, having reached a population of about 4,000 in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, Riley said.
The gray wolf remains on the federal endangered list in Illinois — but only south of Interstate 80, officials said.
Last year, a state conservation officer shot a cougar in Morrison, about 130 miles west of Chicago, after a farmer reported seeing a large cat running from a cornfield toward his farmstead.
There have been at least eight sightings of a black bear cub in western Illinois since May 24, according to news reports. The first was near a backyard bird feeder outside Galena. From there the cub has roamed through Winnebago and DeKalb counties.
All three species were present when settlers arrived in Illinois, but they disappeared from the state by the mid-1800s, state officials said. "Due to improved legal protections and habitat restoration, these species are returning to some of their former range in the eastern United States," according to the governor's office.
The state Department of Natural Resources said property owners who want to "avoid encounters with wildlife" should secure potential food sources, including pet food, barbecue grills and trash.