Nature in the City
In Chicagoland, a quiet rewilding is underway
A cougar prowls wooded ravines in a wealthy community, searching for a mate. A coyote slinks through a human-built landscape on its way to its den outside one of the country’s largest football stadiums. Out in the chain of lakes, a recreational boating area, a plant biologist finds lotus plants blooming for the first time in generations. Further still from the city, a black bear wanders cornfields, seeking a home.
Photo by Ryan Stavely
Thirty years ago, this was all improbable — perhaps impossible. Now, wildlife is returning to the shores of the Great Lakes, even into the heart of the great city of Chicago. Although it’s home to nearly 10 million people, greater Chicagoland also houses more wildlife than at any time in recent history. The city and its suburbs are being rewilded.
Ecological impoverishment has a long and sad history in this country, including the greater Chicago region. When white settlers first arrived in the Great Lakes region, the area had an abundance of deer, coyote, fox, otter, beaver, and a smattering of bobcats, wolves, and elk, too. In the early nineteenth century, there was more than enough wildlife; settlers could trap beaver, muskrat, and otter for fur, go hunting for sport, and have more than enough to feed themselves. In time, though, the city and its hinterland swelled in population, with little to no change in the every man for himself hunting policy. By the turn of the last century, white-tailed deer, by far the most abundant large animal here, was extirpated in the region.
But now the pendulum is swinging back toward ecological health. In the absence of any real predator, deer have overpopulated the area. In 1957, the first modern, regulated hunting season for the animal began. By the 1990’s, the deer had so capitalized on the available habitat and lack of predators that professional culling became necessary, though controversial.
It seemed, for a bit, that Chicago area residents had only to deal with the deer. Then the coyotes started to appear.
In 2000 the Urban Coyote Research program began to study the increasing reports of coyote sightings in suburban Dundee, located northwest of the city center. The project has since evolved into a full-fledged monitoring of the Chicagoland coyote population. Unbeknownst to researcher Stan Gehrt when he started, there are more than 2,000 coyotes living in metropolitan Chicago.
Reasons for the coyote’s success are multifaceted. An urban environment presents an escape from hunting pressures typically found in rural areas. The city also provides an incredible amount of food waste that can be exploited — as well as a surprising amount of shelter, including, for one coyote in the summer 2010, the chill of an air-conditioned Quizno’s.
Coyotes are currently the apex predator in Illinois, in contrast to their pre-settlement role as a mesopredator one notch below wolves. The coyotes have enjoyed the benefits of a phenomena known as “mesopredator release,” in which a smaller predator that has stopped being preyed upon by a larger predator has less pressure on its population. In turn, the coyote has become physically larger in urban areas, and is able to hunt basically without fear of being hunted.
But coyotes may not enjoy free reign at the top of the food chain for long. Cougars are also making a tentative comeback in the region. In 2008, a mountain lion was shot in a Chicago neighborhood, right next to a preschool. Since 2002, there have been at least four shootings of mountain lions in Illinois. Along the wealthy North Shore, an area that boasts an extensive network of forested ravines and Lake Michigan shoreline, rumors of mountain lion sightings pop up every year. Most of these are probably common house cats mistaken for mountain lions, and there are likely mistaken bobcat sightings as well. Bobcats have also surged in population in recent decades.
A lot of this wildlife comeback is attributable to the fact that greater Chicagoland — however urbanized and industrialized it is — actually has a significant amount of habitat capable of supporting coyotes, bobcats, deer, otters (and maybe one day, bears, cougars, and wolves, as well). In the early part of the last century, city residents began to escape to the newly constructed suburbs, emboldened by the popularity of the railroads and the new automobile. It was around this time that Forest Preserve Districts — a peculiar political institution dedicated to preserving open space on a county-wide scale — were established.
The Cook County District, sharing territory with the city of Chicago, was established in 1916 with 500 acres of land. Today, the District preserves 69,000 acres, or 11 percent, of the county. In the region as a whole — from southwestern Michigan to southeastern Wisconsin —some 500,000 acres of forest and prairie are preserved in some fashion.
What is being done with these protected areas is the remarkable story of Chicago conservation. In the 1970’s, volunteers began doing work along the North Branch of the Chicago River, restoring the natural vegetation by removing overgrown brush and replanting prairie and savanna vegetation. Since then, bird species have come back in troves. Sandhill cranes and bluebirds now nest throughout the area, and whooping cranes fly over every year.
The movement to restore Chicagoland’s native prairie vegetation is successful in no small part due to its volunteer-based nature. On almost any given weekend, volunteers are busy across the region clearing garbage from streams, ripping overgrown buckthorn from forests, and removing invasive species from riverbanks. These weekend events, though still niche in the area, are becoming more and more commonplace — symptomatic, perhaps, of a culture growing into its home. There is the Illinois Mycological Association, the Illinois Native Plants Society, Chicago Wilderness, park and forest preserve districts the region over, and a few highly successful land trusts throughout the area, all working hard to create conditions amiable to native flora and fauna.
The efforts range from fairly easy work — cutting out invasive white and yellow sweet clover with machetes — to more sophisticated endeavors such as restoring meanders back to channelized prairie streams and, during the spring and fall, conducting lots of prescribed prairie burns. The people involved range from high schoolers to retirees, and many work in sectors unrelated to the work at hand.
Tangible successes have come from all of these efforts. Riverfront views have opened up for the public, erosion has been lessened as agricultural fields are converted to second-growth prairies, and lotus plants have begun to bloom in Chain of Lakes state park,
In the last decade, rewilding has become one of the most potent ideas in the conservation movement, a way to pivot from simply preserving wild landscapes to restoring them. But for the Chicago wilderness community it has become more than an intellectual exercise in imagining thousand-mile long corridors with species brought back from extinction. To those of us who make our home in the Chicago area, rewilding is the act of rooting down in this community, branching out to each other to make our homes beautiful and to honor the past — and hoping that one day, Bear and Cougar and Otter and Whooping Crane also come around to see what we’ve built for them