Hiking with Shawn’s
Safety Guide Series:
Bears, Wolves, Cougars
Shawnee National Forest is a second growth forest. This means that at one time, most of what we know as the forest was once home sites and farming communities until the 1930s-1940s when it became a National Forest. But before the communities and farms were there, the area was rich with virgin growth forest. In some journals dating back to very earlier pioneer settlement days, people often said there were so many big trees that the area looked like nighttime in the middle of the day and that it was scary. Of course, back then, we had Black Bear, wolves, and mountain lions. Once we cut all the trees down, we destroyed the habitat of these larger predators and they left Illinois as a result. Officially, they have not come back to form new habitats.
However, in the last few years, we’ve seen reports of officially vetted sighting of black bears and even mountain lions in the southern Illinois area. Some famous ones include Bruno the Bear, the Waterloo Bear Sighting, and the Rend Lake Bear Sighting. Other bear sightings have been officially vetted in and around the Shawnee National Forest over the years. It is no secret that Black Bear and Mountain Lions occasionally come into Illinois. But officially there is no population – it is usually a young male passing through in search of a mate. Cougars for example might travel a few thousand miles looking for a mate.
Since bear and other big predator wildlife sighting have been on the increase, I think it is important to know what to do if you encounter one. The chances of you encountering any will be extremely low especially since there isn’t a population but it is better to be prepared than to not be prepared at all and that is the purpose of this article. Preparedness.
Be Bear Aware in the Shawnee National Forest
Black bear is the only bear that will ever likely occur within the Shawnee National Forest and at one time, long before the forest, we had a population of these types of bear. From time to time, we have confirmed bear reports in and around the Shawnee National Forest, but these reports are often very rare. It is extremely unlikely that we will see black bear in the forest any time soon but just in case we do, we need to be bear aware and prepared for such an encounter.
The most important rule of encountering a black bear is to never play dead. A black bear may attack you if you play dead and by playing dead, you are presenting yourself as a potentially easy meal for the bear. Instead of playing dead, slowly but carefully attempt to leave the area after making the bear aware of your presence. Don’t run as it may agitate the bear and put it into chase mode. Try to look big! Take your pack off and hold it over your head. If the bear seems agitated or defensive towards you, yell and scream at it. You want to look like you are tougher than the bear. Don’t climb a tree… bears are excellent climbers. The climbers of Jackson Falls have nothing on the black bear.
If the bear huffs and growls and false charges you, then it is upset with you and wants its space. Calmly move away without turning your back on the bear. The most important thing to do is remain calm. Even if you poop yourself, try to remain calm when doing it. Maybe the bear will smell it and flee the area like your significant others does at home. We are always asking if a bear poops in the woods but chances are that we will poop in the woods after encountering a bear long before we find out if it does unless of course you play dead and it has a reason to poop in the woods after it has finished with you.
It isn’t a bad idea to carry a can of bear spray with you when hiking the Shawnee National Forest. I’ve encountered some pretty mean stray dogs from time to time and a can of defense spray would had come in handy. I recommend only discharging mace at a bear if it is charging towards you or will not leave you alone after you have tried to avoid it. Try to aim for the face and nose of the bear as those areas are the most sensitive parts. You might also look into bear bells and sound devices used to scare away bears as a more non-harmful approach to dealing with bear encounters. With bear bells, it is always a good thing to never sneak up on a bear as that really upsets it. Bears don’t like to be scare pranked so don’t do it or that bear is probably going to be taking a poop in the woods.
In the event that a bear charges you and attacks – fight back! Try to punch, kick, scream-whatever you have to do to survive. Pick up sticks and rocks and throw it at the bear. Strike it with walking sticks, your knife and so on. If the bear attacks, it is time to fight for survival. Bear attacks are very rare, and I can’t even find any information about the last bear attack in Illinois. So, while you should always be cautious when encountering them, the chance of getting attacked by a black bear around here is really slim.
To prevent encountering a bear, simply follow these tips: Scream out “Hey Bear!” every now and then while hiking in the backcountry (or apparently Rend Lake…) so that any bear will instantly think to themselves “Hey! A human is looking for me. I better get the heck out of here!” or at least that is what I think they think. If a bear hears you, chances are, it will attempt to avoid you. They are still scared of us after all! If you are camping and have food, hang it up away from where you are sleeping. Most bear attacks occur when people have food on them in their tent. Bears especially like sweets-I mean have you seen their bellies. Have you seen my belly? Am I a bear? Humph. One thing about the Shawnee though, we have plenty of raccoons who love to steal any food they get ahold of (besides spicy chips, LOL) so it is a good idea to hang food up because of them as you’ll likely encounter them quicker than a black bear.
Encountering Mountain Lions in the Shawnee National Forest
If you ask some of the locals around the Shawnee National Forest about mountain lions, most of them will have some kind of story about seeing one. A lot of people think they are here and that we have a lot of them. There are problems with that belief. First of all, everyone has an awesome camera in their pocket and none of us can ever do wrong and get away with it anymore without someone snapping a photo or video – but yet they don’t when they see a mountain lion??? I call bull. Secondly, mountain lions are really territorial and loners. There aren’t going to be tons of pumas in the Shawnee because it’s not big enough for them to maintain various territories. They would kill one and another and we would find their corpses. But even though mountain lions are likely not here in a populous form doesn’t mean they don’t pass through the area from time to time looking for a mate.
In the extremely rare event that you ever witness a mountain lion in the Shawnee National Forest, treat them exactly like you would treat an encounter with a Black Bear. Never turn your back on them-most attacks happen to hikers and mountain bikers out west when the cats pounce on them from behind. Have you ever watched a house cat sneak up on a mouse or bird or something like that and pounce them? We are those little critters! Like with bears, remain calm even if pooping your pants and try to look big and mean. If you have a laser pointer, maybe shine it away and hope the mountain lion chases it-please video that if you do. In all seriousness, don’t screw with the big cat, give it plenty of space to escape you and never turn your back on it.
If it attacks, fight for your life! Throw rocks, sticks, hit it with objects, scream, spit, poop your pants, throw up, sing terribly-whatever you have to do to survive. Don’t push your weak friend down and let them get ate while you flee, that isn’t very cool. The nose and eyes of a puma are the sensitive parts, go for them if you have to. But getting attacked is probably not going to happen in the utmost rare moment that you might encounter a mountain lion in the Shawnee National Forest. Chances are that the cat will notice you, way before you notice it and hide. It might watch you and fantasize about eating you…but you’ll likely be left alone and never even know that a larger version of Garfield was drooling at the mouth when you walked by it tripping over rocks and dancing from walking into spider webs.
Do be careful around clothing stores on the weekends though, especially younger males because that is where the majority of cougar encounters occur in southern Illinois…
Encountering Wolves in the Shawnee National Forest
I don’t hear many reports of wolves, but it is possible to see them as it is with other larger predator animals. A wolf attacking a human is almost unheard of. Domestic dogs attack more humans per week than wolves do in a decade. The chance of even encountering a wolf in the Shawnee is probably extremely rarer than encountering a bear or cougar. But if the planets align and the encounter happens-just like with bears and lions, try to appear as big as you can. Don’t run. Don’t approach or attempt to feed them. If it is a full moon, automatically assume they are werewolves! If they attack, fight for survival like with anything that would attack you. If a squirrel attacks you, fight for survival! If a horsefly attacks you-scream and run for your life.
Dogs and the Bad Boy Predators
Keep your dog on a leash! If you were to encounter a bear, lion or wolf and you have a loose dog, the dog will likely try to attack it. The dog will probably get hurt or even killed in the process. If the dog is a toy-whatever, the bear might actually start laughing and then eat it. That might not be totally true… But another word of advice is to not bring a pet that is currently in heat with you on hikes. A dog in heat will likely attract an animal that we have plentiful amounts of – a coyote! That will be a disaster which could lead to your buddy or you getting bit by to Coyote in the process. Defiantly use your brain and some common sense when hiking with your pets. You might not want to bring the pet rabbit on the trail-it might be an easy meal for these big critters.
Encountering Bigfoot in the Shawnee National Forest
How can I talk about black bear, mountain lions and wolves in the Shawnee without mentioning the obvious creature that is more likely to be out there – bigfoot. I mean come on people… Garden of the Gods Outpost’s Sassy and now Harrisburg? Big Muddy Monster? I think there might be a Sasquatch out there. I heard he likes cupcakes and sandwich cookies, specially ones from Sissy’s Sweet Shop or Frosted by Mollie in Metropolis. Vanilla is his game, too, remember that! People always say they hear about me but never see me… I mean Bigfoot gosh darn it!
But if you do encounter an actual bigfoot, let’s go over the obvious safety tips that we have learned over the years from television and redneck encounters… Never knock on Bigfoot’s cave and put a bag of flaming poop on his doorstep – he won’t get the joke like we do. For that matter, don’t mess with sasquatch at all, eat your beef jerky and leave him the heck alone. Bigfoot has a name… calling him Harry is a bit discriminatory in my opinion-some of you will not get that reference at all because I am old! The Big Muddy Monster is totally different, the people of Murphysboro will murder you if you attempt to take that away from them and they have a pretty muddy river to get rid of you in. Booford is the name of the Little Bigfoot and he spends most of his time sleeping in my truck because he is after all…part cougar, LOL, I’ll hear something over that one! Some bigfoot sightings in the Shawnee occur around Franks Tract near Lusk Creek while others have reported to see Bigfoot and its family enjoying ice cream around Karbers Ridge.
To learn more about Bigfoot and potentially see him, you should go to Garden of the Gods Outpost near, can you believe it? Garden of the Gods… And you should buy all of their bigfoot swag. This isn’t a sponsored post but be sure to tell them Hiking with Shawn sent you and he will happily oblige with free ice cream for life. Really! You should do that and don’t forget to mention the ice cream! But the Outpost does sell a lot of Bigfoot stuff and buying it will support a local business that depends on your business!
If you ever actually encounter bigfoot, I have no advice for you. You will probably be done after that. Best of luck to you…
Now let’s get serious for a minute!
Black bears and mountain lions are legally ‘Threatened Species’ in the State of Illinois. This is due to the very low amount of these animals that “visit” the state as well as potentially providing a safe area for them to return to a habitat occurrence. So, this means that it is illegal or harass, injure, or kill a black bear or mountain lion in the State of Illinois unless you are in immediate danger of one. Gray wolves are ‘Endangered Species’ in the State of Illinois (even after removal from federal protected list) so that means harassment, harm or killing gray wolves is illegal under any circumstance. That is the law and I am just here to inform you of it!
If you ever witness a bear, cougar, or wolf in Illinois – please report it to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as this is the agency that manages wildlife for the state.
If completely safe to do so, take photos/video footage of the animal, its tracks and scat. Use quarters or a similar object for measurement. This information will help wildlife officials with their inquiry into your report.
I’m not trying to tell you what to do here but I do not recommend sharing any reports of these sources of wildlife to social media or the news. In the event that these animals are sighted, most of the time, they are only passing through the area. Once people know they are here, they will often try to seek out the animal. This will not only make it difficult for wildlife officials to investigate and safely monitor the animal, but it also increases the risk of harm to the animal. It also increases the risk of negative encounters with the animal. It is best to report to the DNR and let them handle it from there. You can always share your photos long after the wildlife has gone away from the area. Again, I am not telling you what to do but that is what I will do. I might have already seen these animals here – you will never know because a Bigfoot never tells. With that note, you might not want to report Bigfoot sighting to IDNR…
I’m sorry IDNR if that suggestion is ignored and you get Bigfoot reports… Oops. My Bad.
Now we do have similar wildlife that does officially occur within the Shawnee Forest Country. We have bobcat and I have seen many of them. I won’t give location information though because there is a hunting season for them, and I am completely opposed of bobcat hunting so I can’t share that information. We defiantly have coyotes as well and an abundance of them. There is also a season on them as well which I don’t agree with. I think hunting should be reserved for food hunting. That is my opinion and I know some will disagree and that is fine. I’m not out protesting it and I know the value of hunting to the National Forest, but I don’t have to agree with some of it – don’t hate me, I don’t hate you for not agreeing. And we probably do have bigfoot… Okay now we don’t have to be so serious anymore…
My Final Thoughts…
I hope that one day black bear, mountain lions and gray wolves come back to populate their species in the Shawnee National Forest. The increase sightings might be a sign that is could possible in years to come. It might not happen while I am alive but maybe afterwards. I’d love to see it happen while I am alive. The government could help make that possible by dropping them into the forest with helicopters like they do with rattlesnakes and armadillos… That is joke people! The government doesn’t do that, don’t make them think I was serious and hate me because of it. But in reality, I do hope they come back here. Deer and coyote populations would be controlled if they did come back. People are scared of these animals, but they are scared due to a lack of education of these animals. Attacks from the animals do happen to humans but they are rare even if the areas where these critters are flourish with them. Our wilderness areas could really be true wilderness areas if they included bear, lions, and wolves. And besides, Bigfoot can use a friend after social distancing from everyone for so dang long…
If I could get away with it, I’d transplant them here…. I really would if I could get away with it…
To sum everything up is one sentence… If you encounter a large predator animal in the Shawnee National Forest: Don’t run, try to look as big as possible, back away slowly, don’t turn your back on the animal and if attacked, fight for survival and do whatever you have to do to survive. Unless its Bigfoot, then you are screwed…
To learn more facts (actual facts) about Black Bear species, habitat, and conservations, see this link. For information about Mountain Lions, see this link and for information about Gray Wolves, see this link. As always, be safe out there when exploring the Shawnee National Forest and leave with good memories, not bad injuries.
One last thing!
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Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.