Lions and Lynxes and Bears (Oh My!)
In light of the recent sightings of a black bear in LaPorte county, near Michigan City, it’s interesting to consider the many animals that have lived in the Indiana Dunes through the years. A little research yields an eclectic list of critters.
First, about that bear. Prior to our recent visitor, the last sighting of a black bear in the Chicago region was in October 1871 “…where [a bear] was seen in the woods west of Waverly (Porter) Beach, near what is now called Juniper Valley.”
Cohabiting the region with bears were a host of well-adapted predators. The fisher, described as “somewhere between a domesticated ferret and a wolverine” in size and attitude, once roamed the area. A partial jaw was once discovered in the Dunes and an 1855 account said that “…the fisher used frequently to be seen in the heavy timber along Lake Michigan.” The lynx, a creature of the northern boreal region, is recorded in Starke, Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties. The last one seen in the Dunes was killed by a hunter in 1873 “at Tremont on Beach Ridge…”
While the fisher and lynx would have preyed on middle-sized and smaller animals, apex predators abounded, too. George Brennan, author of The Wonders of the Dunes, quoted two old-timers who noted that, when they arrived in the area in the 1830s, there were “…large numbers of panthers [mountain lions] in the dunes, the beaches, and woods of the Valparaiso Moraine.” Timber wolves, though largely extirpated throughout the eastern United States by the mid-1800s, persisted into the early 20th century. Two wolves were killed in 1914 “in the dense woods some distance east of Dune Park near Oak Hill.” And Brennan reported the Dunes provided splendid hiding-places for the last wolves and that, “…there were still a few of them left between Dune Park and Michigan City until 1919.” (Note: “Dune Park” was a stop on the South Shore line, just west of Dune Acres, roughly where the Arcelor Mittal plant is today.)
It’s probable that these meat-eaters sated themselves on elk (a pair of antlers were discovered near the Kankakee River near South Bend in 1895, deer (common in the Dunes until the late 19th century), snowshoe hare (extensive reports from the Dunes), and other herbivores. There are even accounts of Bison grazing along the banks of the Saint Joseph River near Niles, Michigan during the 18th century and a bison skeleton was recovered in Berrien County, just twenty miles from here. Porcupines were common in the Dunes, too. In 1915 one was shot “directly north of Cowles’ tamarack swamp.” (Cowles Bog)
While many of these Duneland inhabitants are relegated to history (at least for now) some are probably still present, if not extraordinarily rare. Bobcats were formerly common in the area and, if infrequent reports are to be believed, still live here in small numbers. Barbara Plampin, a longtime resident of Dune Acres, tells me that she once collected a grey fox that was a local traffic casualty. She also mentions that the National Park Service verified badger tracks along the Cowles Bog trail. Alas, no badger was found. And, if you like your animals without fur, consider this: When the local dunes were bulldozed to build Bethlehem Steel in the 1960s, one operator reported seeing from forty to fifty massasauga rattlesnakes. More recently, in 2004, the discarded skin of a rattlesnake was discovered in Howes Prairie (between DA and Porter Beach). And, since the 1990s, there have been several live rattlesnakes sighted at the Beverly Shores train station. Perhaps they were visiting from Chicago.
Most of these these long-vanquished species fell prey to hunting, trapping and habitat destruction. But, with modern day legal productions and more enlightened environmental attitudes, perhaps some will follow in the tracks of their animal cousins and reestablish themselves around the Dunes.