On April 15th 2008 neighbors in Chicago’s Roscoe village were stunned to see a 150 pound male cougar roaming the alleys and backyards of that crowded city neighborhood. Curiosity and concern turned quickly to horror as the great cat was brought down in a hail of bullets by Chicago police. In the summer of 1993 Chicago Police, Zoo officials and Chicago’s Animal Care and Control cornered and sedated a large male wolf in Lincoln Park. In 2012 Black bears were reported as far south as Rockford

All of these animals, including deer, elk, bobcats, Bald Eagles, wild Turkey, Foxes, Coyotes and more all share two things in common; They were all once native to the Chicago suburban area. indeed, many could be found in the surrounding suburbs just thirty years ago. Second, all of them returned via essentially the same routes; Rail lines and Metra Tracks.

Relax, before being concerned about sharing a seat with a large predatory mammal(Insert joke here), we are talking tracks, not trains.

The fact is, rail lines serve as an ideal habitat and conduit for distressed wildlife. It is really all about habitats, or the loss of habitats. and while rail lines offer tracts of unbroken, mostly interrupted overgrown or wooded lands for hundreds and even thousands of miles, those lines bring wildlife into direct conflict with ever encroaching humanity as much as providing nominal sanctuary.

Chicago itself is an ecosystem, with an often unseen but surprisingly diverse and variant spectrum of wildlife. Anyone who lives adjacent to railroad tracks and the lakefront knows something of the seasonal migrations which occur, from snakes and mice seeking shelter for the winter or the ubiquitous migrations of geese dominating parks and the lakefront. The reality is that Chicago, constructed where the Great Lakes meet Midwestern prairies and woodlands is a series of overlapping and intersecting ecosystems both new and old. Those who have watched the curious collection of gulls and other birds where parking lots have replaced wetlands has seen the generational archaeology of lost and former habitats. They existed long before the metropolis of Chicago, before settlers, and helped attract the first native Americans for the abundance of wildlife Chicago once offered.

Again, It really is all about the loss of habitats. And driving that loss has been the growth of suburban sprawl surrounding the city. Where once it was possible, even a few decades before, to see farmland just outside the city, now to find farmland one has to travel quite a distance. That farmland has been displaced by malls, factories, housing developments and expressways. The result is that animals, once common and natural to Chicago have been driven out. Their sporadic, and even chaotic return, as with the Roscoe Village Cougar is as much a product of better conservation efforts helping to rebuild wildlife populations as it is pressure on the loss of habitats elsewhere.

That pressure is monumental, from a wildlife perspective. The population growth in surrounding counties tells a stark tale of the inherent conflict between blind and unchecked urban and suburban sprawl and wildlife habitats. Many counties surrounding Chicago, such as Will County have more than tripled just since 1960. By contrast, between 1890 -1960, a period of 70 years, the population of Will County doubled from 63k to 134k, but much of that was due to an agricultural based economy, meaning farms and open land, rather than the consumer based economy and eradication of open lands we see now. Dupage county, since 1960 has grown from around 313,000 people in 1960 to nearly a million today, according to census figures. Lake county, still harboring open land, has doubled in the same period to more than 700,000. Something has to give, in that circumstance, and that something is most often wildlife and habitats.

The reality is, those displace animal populations have to go somewhere. Rail lines provide one of the few uncompromised and unencumbered habitats for animals. They serve as sanctuaries for smaller animals, like rats, and mice, snakes, all sorts of insects, birds and more. That ecosystem base becomes a magnate for larger animals, a pipeline of sorts carrying the abundantly diverse wildlife that once ranged freely for a millennia in what would later become Chicago…and it is all here virtually right under your nose, or outside the window of your daily commute to work.

As for just exactly what that large hairy thing in the train seat beside you? Maybe a pocket full of treats and knowing the words to a lullaby or two might help.

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