Animals of our recent past

Just a few hundred years ago, animals that populated Illinois were different than what we see today

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Lions and tigers and bears, oh my? Maybe in some parts of the world, but not here in Illinois, where our mammalian wildlife skews a little more tame than the trifecta made famous by “The Wizard of Oz.”

When we think about the mammals that populate the land right here in Illinois, deer probably come to mind, and rabbits too. Think about it for a minute and you can probably add several more to the list: squirrels and chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, maybe opossums and moles.

A couple of hundred years ago, however, the animals that populated our lands included many that are quite a bit different than what we are used to today — and maybe even included lions and tigers and bears.

As land use in Illinois changed, so, too, did our flora and fauna. Prairies and forests gave way to agricultural fields, and with that change, some animals moved on to areas with more suitable habitat. Others were hunted or driven away. Here’s a closer look at some of the animals now gone from Illinois but a normal part of the habitat in the not-too-distant past.


Three bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

(Photo courtesy of Matthew Zook)

To be sure, we do have bison living in Illinois, but in managed herds that are part of conservation programs at places like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands and Fermilab. However, prior to 1800, an estimated 30 million to 100 million freely roamed the United States, including right here in Illinois, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Bison populations across all of the United States were decimated, though, with millions of the animals slaughtered, many by the U.S. government as part of an effort to destroy the livelihood of Native tribes across the Great Plains. In Illinois, bison roamed the land from the late 17th century until the early 19th century, according to the Illinois State Museum. They disappeared from the state by 1820 as a result of intensive hunting.


Today, the range of the American bison is only about 1% of what it once was. The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times is Yellowstone National Park, where the population of these animals fluctuates between 2,300 and 5,500, according to the National Park Service.

Today, the bison population in the United States is estimated at between 400,000 and 500,000, but the vast majority of these are livestock. The bison living in places like Midewin and Nachusa Grasslands are part of about 30,000 bison living on public and private lands that are managed as part of conservation efforts.

Black bears

Two black bears in a tree.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Here in Illinois, when we think about black bears, or any bears for that matter, we probably think of the zoo. Afterall, bears are not a part of the landscape here in our state. However, black bears used to be quite common here and elsewhere in the Midwest, although they were eliminated from Illinois by 1870, Wildlife Illinois reports.

Bears disappeared from areas like Illinois and Indiana because of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, but they do still live in some adjacent states, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Today, black bears mostly inhabit forested areas, including both deciduous and coniferous forests as well as forested mountain regions, according to the National Wildlife Federation.They don’t generally inhabit open areas, which helps explain their absence in Illinois.

Black bears occasionally stray into Illinois from neighboring states like Wisconsin and Missouri, but when they do their time here is brief, as they are just passing through. Since 2008, black bear sightings have been confirmed in Illinois six times, with the most recent sighting earlier this year in the southern part of the state. 

In Illinois, bears are protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code, and they cannot be harassed, hunted or killed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. If you see a bear in Illinois, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources asks that you report it to the agency online.


A mountain lion on a rock.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Illinois was once part of the cougar’s normal range, but they have been absent from the state since 1870, mainly because of hunting and habitat loss, Wildlife Illinois reports. In many places, cougars were hunted because of the perceived threat to livestock.

North American cougars, also called mountain lions and pumas, have the greatest range of any mammal living in the Americas, living as far north as Canada’s Yukon and as far south as the Strait of Magellan in Chile, according to the National Wildlife Federation. They can live in just about any habitat as long as they can find adequate shelter and prey.

In Illinois, cougars are not a normal part of the fauna, but they do make their way here from time to time. Since 2002, four cougars have been killed in Illinois, including once shot and killed in April 2008 in Chicago, Wildlife Illinois reports. In addition, video from trail cameras has led to a few other confirmed cougar sightings in the state.

Cougars can be confused with bobcats and domestic dogs, however cougars are much larger than all these animals, weighing between 75 pounds and 240 pounds and standing between 27 inches and 31 inches tall at the shoulder, according to Wildlife Illinois. Compare that to the bobcat, which typically weighs between 10 pounds and 40 pounds and stands between 20 inches and 23 inches tall.

Like bears, cougars are protected in our state by the Illinois Wildlife Code, and cannot be harassed, hunted or killed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. If you see a cougar in Illinois, report the sighting online to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.


An elk in a field.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

When we think of elk, we think of the Rocky Mountains, and that is where these animals are now concentrated in the United States. However, they once lived across much of the country before being hunted and driven west to less populated areas, National Geographic reports.

Elk disappeared from Illinois by the early 1800s, and they have remained absent since that time, Wildlife Illinois reports. Elk sightings in the state are mainly from escaped elk owned by private landowners. No wild populations of the animal have existed here since the 1800s.

Elk, also called wapiti and red deer, are related to white-tailed deer, but they are much larger, National Geographic reports. They can weigh between 325 pounds and 1,100 pounds, and males are much larger than females. For comparison, white-tailed deer typically weigh between 100 pounds and 300 pounds.

Today, elk are mainly concentrated in the western United States, from the Eastern Rockies and as far north as Canada and south into New Mexico, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.There is also a small population of elk living in a small northern region of Michigan’s lower peninsula and in a few other scattered locations in the eastern United States. These populations in the eastern United States are from transplanted elk from the west.

Gray wolf

A group of wolves looking off in the distancce.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Gray wolves once lived across Illinois and almost all of the United States, save for the Southeast, as well as portions of Mexico and Canada, but today their range is limited to just a few areas in the United States, including parts of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan and northeast Oregon, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Wolf populations were decimated in the United States when their prey — bison, deer, elk and moose — were largely eliminated by settlers as they moved west across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With prey scarce, wolves began to hunt sheep and other livestock. In turn, ranchers and government agencies offered bounty programs for the wolves, paying a head fee of $20 to $50 per wolf.

Coyotes are often mistaken for wolves, particularly in winter when coyotes look bigger because of their thicker fur coats. The two animals can appear similar at first glance, but wolves are quite a bit larger than coyotes, standing about 2½ feet tall and 5 feet to 6 feet long, compared to 1½ feet tall and about 4 feet long for coyotes, according to Wildlife Illinois. Gray wolves usually weigh between 80 pounds and 120 pounds, while coyotes weigh only 20 pounds to 50 pounds. Coyotes are typically light brown or gray in color, while wolves can also be light brown or gray but may also have a darker coat. If you get a good look at an animal’s tail, that can be a telling difference too. While coyotes walk with their tails pointed downward, wolves carry their tails straight back from their bodies while walking.

The gray wolf is listed on Illinois’ endangered species list. However, in 2020, it was removed from the United States’ endangered species list after its population was deemed to have been successfully recovered.

While wolves no longer are considered part of Illinois’ wildlife, they are occasionally spotted in the state. Since 2002, the state has confirmed several wolves in Illinois, usually after they are hit by a car or shot by a coyote hunter, Wildlife Illinois reports.

In addition to their protections as a state endangered species, wolves in the state are also protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code, which prohibits them from being harrassed, hunted or killed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. If you spot a wolf in Illinois, report it online to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.


A porcupine walking towards the camera.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

North American porcupines lived in the northern part of Illinois up until the 1800s, but as large forests were cut down to make way for agricultural fields porcupines disappeared from the state. Today, porcupines continue to live in the northern part of the Great Lakes region, as well as in the western United States and parts of the northeast, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

When they lived in Illinois, porcupines inhabited deciduous forests, and they still do live in these types of forests elsewhere in their range. They also can live in open tundra and desert climates. In forested areas, porcupines often mostly live in trees. In other areas where trees are more sparse, they spend more of their time on the ground, Animal Diversity Web reports.

Porcupines are most well-known for their quills, which serve as an effective defense mechanism against predators. However, they cannot shoot or throw their quills at predators, as is commonly thought, according to the Smithsonian Zoo. Instead, because the quills are only loosely attached, they easily separate when they come into contact with predators.

(Lead image via Shutterstock) 

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