Lions and Lynxes and Bears (Oh My!):
The Forgotten Fauna of the Indiana Dunes

The Wild Side of the Dunes

The recent stir caused by a black bear ambling near Michigan City... invites us to consider the eclectic cast of creatures that once roamed the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

We've cracked a few natural history books and what we found might surprise you.

First, about that bear. There are widespread reports of black bears in the southern Great Lakes region from the 17th and 18th centuries. Today's Chicago Bears are found at Soldiers Field, but an ursine visitor was "taken" near the corner of Randolph and Clark streets in 1833. In the Indiana Dunes, the last sighting of a black bear was In October 1871 "...where it was seen in the woods west of Waverly Beach, near what is now called Juniper Valley." It is suspected, this lone individual was driven south from Michigan during the infamous wildfires that plagued the state in that year.

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, undoubtedly roamed the area. A partial jaw was discovered in the Indiana Dunes in the early 20th century and an 1855 account said that "...the fisher used frequently to be seen in the heavy timber along Lake Michigan."

According to noted South Bend naturalist, Marcus Ward Lyon, badgers were present as late as 1917. He cites reports from Berrien County, scarcely twenty miles from the Dunes. They were likely trapped to near extinction shortly thereafter, but rare sightings in the late 1980s and early 1990s give hope for their eventual return.

The lynx, an elusive creature of the northern boreal region, is recorded from Starke, Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties. The last one seen in the Dunes was was killed by a hunter in 1873 "at Tremont on Beach Ridge..." — probably within the presented day Indiana Dunes State Park.

Mammals not now extant in the Dune Region, but whose remains may possibly be found buried in the sand or in the swamps.

Marcus Ward Lyon, Jr., South Bend. 1922

Fisher (Martes pennanti Erxleben), black bear (Ursus americanis Pallas), otter (Lutra canadensis Schreber), puma (Felis cougar Kerr), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis Kerr), bay lynx (bobcat) (L. ruffus Gueldenstaedt), porcupine (Erethicon dorsutus Linneaus), varying hare (Lems americanus Erxleben), bison (Bison bison Linneaus), elk (Cervus canadensis Erxleben).

Apex Predators

While the fisher, badger, 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 until the dawn of the twentieth century. Two wolves were killed in 1914 “in the dense woods some distance east of Dune Park near Oak Hill.” 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 present day Dune Acres).

A Bounty of Prey

The carniores sated themselves on prey species we know today — cottontail rabbit, opossum, raccoon, and squirrel — and others that have vanished from the Dunes.


Elk (Wapiti)

A pair of antlers were discovered near the Kankakee River near South Bend in 1895.

snowshoe hare

Snowshoe Hare

There are extensive reports of snowshoe hare in the Dunes through the early 1900s.



Bison once roamed the prairie peninsula which extends into the Dunes region, with written accounts from as near as Berrien County (Michigan), just twenty miles from the Dunes.



Porcupines were once common in the Dunes. In 1915 one was shot “directly north of Cowles' tamarack swamp” (Cowles Bog).

Elusive Residents

While many of these Duneland inhabitants are relegated to history (at least for now) some are probably still present, albeit extraordinarily rare.

Bobcats — referred to as bay lynx in early records — were considered extirpated in the region by the 1920s. But modern sightings confirm they have returned to their former haunts, likely in very small numbers.

While red foxes remain relatively common in the area, Barbara Plampin tells of a dead grey fox she collected on Route 12 in the early 1990s.

If you like your animals without fur, consider this: When the local dunes were bulldozed to build Bethlehem Steel in the 1960s, one equipment operator reported seeing from forty to fifty Massasauga rattlesnakes. In 2004, the discarded skin of a rattlesnake was discovered in Howes Prairie, attesting to the species' continued presence. If you need more evidence, several live rattlesnakes have been seen sunning themselves near the Beverly Shores train station. Perhaps they were visiting from Chicago.

The Future of the Dunes Wilderness

Most of these these long-vanquished species declined due to over-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 in the Dunes.

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