MOUNT MORRIS – The little black bear that's been wandering around northern Illinois the past few weeks was 20 feet up an oak tree, southwest of Mount Morris off Lowell Park Road, Wednesday afternoon.
He was being ogled, photoed and filmed by a few dozen people until police came to break up the crowd. 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. So far, it's been going really well, so we're going to keep reiterating that message," Young said.
Not only are crowds of looky-loos stressing out 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 the conservation police or any other law enforcement agency 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. Because he's not finding suitable habitat here, he 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 ... in short, they want to let the bear be a bear.
"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.
His rarity, though, is what's making him so popular -- he even has his own Facebook page.
The IDNR is keeping track of the youngster, which was spotted more than a dozen times in DeKalb County last week before being seen Friday afternoon in a large stack of timber on a farm in Ogle County near Rochelle.
Before that, he also was 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 bruin probably won't be the last to visit the Sauk Valley, 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.