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Peterson: Roaming bears a frightful thought

Published: Thursday, June 19, 2014 10:31 p.m. CDT

Last week, an American black bear was rummaging through DeKalb County, minding its own business and threatening no one, but rummaging nonetheless.

It wasn’t bothering anyone, according to reports in the Northwest Herald, and sheriff’s police were giving it plenty of room to roam as long as it wasn’t bothering anybody. It had crossed into DeKalb County from Winnebago County, and was last seen heading west into Ogle County.

Which is far enough away to suit me.

This is no small animal. It is estimated to weigh 250 to 300 pounds and stand 6 feet tall on its hind legs. It is bigger than me, but not by much. And according to reports, the black bear is a timid animal who doesn’t like to meet up with people. And the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was keeping an eye on it, hoping it heads back north to where it likely came from.

I was surprised by the calm with which the bear was greeted. I was expecting animal control to be on the hunt with tranquilizer guns to hunt down the bear, capture it and return it to northern Wisconsin. But the sheriff’s police and the Department of Natural Resources were content to let it roam. Follow it, but leave it alone.

My first interaction with a bear was 30-some years ago when I was a reporter for the weekly newspaper in Thorp, Wisconsin, the Courier. Thorp was on the edge of the Northwoods. This bear was hit by a car nearby, and I was assigned to take a picture of it. It was hanging in some farmer’s barn. And it must have been 180 to 200 pounds and about 5 feet tall, smaller than the DeKalb County bear.

That woke me up. Not only was I on the edge of the Northwoods, but fauna from the Northwoods was making its way into Thorp.

I’m afraid of bears.

A photographer friend once had a brush with a bear when she was hiking. She rounded a curve on a hike with a friend and came face to face with a bear about 20 feet away. She and her friend froze in their tracks, and she whispered to her friend not to move a muscle and not to look the bear in the eye.

After what seemed like an eternity, the bear eventually ambled away. I would have been saying my prayers. To myself. That’s if I could have remembered any, being frozen as things would have it. The dead bear was close enough for me.

A couple of summers ago, we were in the deep Northwoods of Wisconsin, having suddenly made a left turn at a sign that said Potato River Falls. That sounded like an adventure, and waterfalls are very cool. So we turned.

Driving down the road to the falls, we saw a large black bear running across the field – the first time I had seen a live bear in the wild. And it made me wonder whether there were other bears in the neighborhood.

But we threw caution to the wind and proceeded on our adventure. What are the odds of a second or third bear being in the very woods we were in? And this bear was running – fast – in the opposite direction we were going.

The falls were magnificent, and no bears crossed our path. They were forever in the back of my mind, and the idea of wrestling a bear was unappealing. We saw the falls and got out of there unscathed.

But bears aren’t supposed to be in northern Illinois. We are hundreds of miles from the Northwoods, where that kind of thing is to be expected. This is civilization. One of the spokesmen in the story said wildlife is attracted to the greening of urban areas, setting aside parkland for preservation and our enjoyment of the forests and savannahs.

But a bear? Are they reading travel guides? You know, visit northern Illinois, where countryside is abundant, as is food to fill your belly. Surprisingly, they apparently like the food in bird feeders.

The bear turned up in a tree in Ogle County near Mount Morris on Wednesday, according to a Northwest Herald report, and about 20 people had gathered under the tree to get a glimpse before being shooed away by the sheriff’s police. They don’t want the bear getting used to people. They want the bear to continue to amble along on its way out of state.

Keep it afraid of people, keep it on the move. What about people being afraid of it?

I’m not so sure about letting nature take its way. It’s going to get in trouble, not that it’s a bad bear. It’s just a bear. And it needs a tranquilizer and a trip to the Northwoods where it can be with fauna friends.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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