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.
Mammals not now extant in the Dune Region, but whose remains may possibly be found buried in the sand or in the swamps.
— from NOTES ON THE MAMMALS OF THE DUNE REGION OF PORTER COUNTY, INDIANA.
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).
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.
A pair of antlers were discovered near the Kankakee River near South Bend in 1895.
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).
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.