MOUNT MORRIS – The black bear that's been wandering around northern Illinois the past few weeks was 20 feet up an oak tree Wednesday afternoon southwest of Mount Morris off Lowell Park Road.
He was being ogled, photographed and filmed by 20 or so people until police sent the crowd on its way. By evening, he managed to make it down the tree and wander off.
An audience, experts say, is the last thing he needs.
The bear's best chance of survival is for people to keep their distance, so he can find his way back to his natural habitat and not become accustomed to humans, said Chris Young, a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"We have been counseling people to leave him alone," Young said. "So far, it's been going really well, so we're going to keep reiterating that message."
The bear, which was spotted near Genoa last week before making his way west and crossing the Ogle County line, has become a source of widespread curiosity. Not only are crowds putting stress on the bear, but they're also irritating the people on whose property they're trampling.
"People need to be aware that you can't go on private property without permission. Landowners are getting testy," said Acting Capt. Laura Petreikis, with the Illinois Conservation Police. "We want to protect the bear, but we're also going to protect the property that the bear goes onto."
That means anyone caught trespassing on private property, blocking a roadway or creating any other kind of hazard will be ticketed, by conservation police or other law enforcement agencies involved, she said.
"It's fine to view the bear from a distance, but we want to leave it alone so it doesn't become aggressive," she said. "Give it its space.
"It's like any other wild animal, and you should never corner or chase any wild animal."
The bruin is likely a young male, pushed out of his home territory by adults and sent off to make his own way in the world, Young said. He's minding his own business, doing what bears do: looking for a home, and probably a mate.
He's also not staying in one place. He didn't find suitable habitat in DeKalb County and so made his way west, and seems to be looping his way back toward the Mississippi River, which is a good thing, Young said.
The IDNR does not want to trap him, for a variety of reasons. He's shown no signs of aggression. Finding his own habitat is what he's supposed to do. No zoo is going to want him, and there's no reason to lock him up in a research facility.
"If the bear poses a threat, we will have to re-evaluate, but right now it hasn't given us any reason to," Young said.
Illinois once had thousands of black bears, but by the mid-1800s, settlers had harvested them all for their meat and hides, so "it's a special thing that the bear's here," he said.
The scarcity of bears, however, is what's making this one so popular.
Before the bear came to DeKalb County, he had been sighted several times in Stephenson, Winnebago and Boone counties, all of which border Wisconsin, where he is believed to have originated.
He's not the first American black bear to ramble through the region.
According to the Illinois Extension Service, on Feb. 3, 2009, IDNR Conservation Police tranquilized a 200-pound black bear boar that had been roaming Bureau County. It first was spotted in June 2008 near Sheffield. It was near Neponset when it was caught.
That bear, which was thought to have been in the care of humans before being released or escaping, wasn't suitable for the wild and was taken to a USDA licensed facility in southern Illinois.
The little Ogle County bear probably won't be the last to visit the area, either.
"We can probably expect one from time to time," Young said.
If all goes well, this one should just pad off into his future, wandering off the way he wandered in.
"The best bet is just to let him make his way," Young said.