Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Northwest Indiana once home to panthers, wolves and porcupines

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Are bobcats roaming the forests of Northwest Indiana?

(Tribune photo at Washington Park Zoo by Aby Canright)

Reader Column

By Rich Hawksworth

In light of the recent sightings of a black bear near Michigan City, it’s interesting to consider the many animals that have lived in Duneland through the years. A bit of research yields an eclectic list of critters.

First, about that bear. 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.” Alongside bears lived 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 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, frequented Starke, Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties. The last one seen locally 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 said that, when they arrived in the area in the 1830s, there were “large numbers of panthers in the Dunes, the beaches, and woods of the Valparaiso Moraine.” Most timber wolves were gone from the region by the early 1800s, but the Dunes provided excellent hiding-places for isolated populations to persist. Two wolves were killed in 1914 “in the dense woods some distance east of Dune Park near Oak Hill” and reportedly, “there were still a few [wolves] left between Dune Park and Michigan City until 1919.”

These meat-eaters might have sated themselves on elk (a pair of antlers were discovered near the Kankakee River in 1895, deer (common in the Dunes until the late 19th century), snowshoe hare (extensive reports from the Dunes), and other herbivores. Prior to the 19th century, bison grazed here (a skeleton was recovered in Berrien County), and porcupines were apparently 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 likely are still present. 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 Dune Acres resident, reports that she collected a grey fox that was a traffic casualty. She also mentions badger tracks that were verified by the National Park Service along the Cowles Bog trail. 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 Porter Beach and Dune Acres), and several live massasaugas have been seen at the Beverly Shores train station since the 1990s.

Most of these long-vanquished species fell prey to hunting, trapping and habitat destruction. But, who knows? With modern day legal protections and more enlightened environmental attitudes, perhaps some will follow in the tracks of their animal cousins and reestablish themselves in Duneland.

 

Posted 7/8/2015

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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