Guest Columnist

Lions, tigers and bears in Iowa? Oh, yes

Rare, native carnivores have no protections in Iowa, meaning that they can be killed at any time

Brian Gibbs photo

A black bear ambles through a cornfield Friday near the Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa.
Brian Gibbs photo A black bear ambles through a cornfield Friday near the Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa.

It’s no fairy tale or fantasy sequence from a classic film, but it’s still special. As Iowans are enjoying the outdoors more than ever and looking for ways to safely leave our homes we’re witnessing some extraordinary wildlife sightings. One thing is certain — Iowans are rooting for the animals, and they’re clearly excited about seeing native species coming home again.

Just last week, a mountain lion was spotted in Hiawatha and late last year, a roaming mountain lion made headlines cruising through Des Moines. Earlier this year, a black bear in Northeast Iowa was acknowledged as one of the first to call our state home in years. In the spring, a roaming black bear attracted people from across the region to flock to Eastern Iowa to see him. “Bruno” ended up in Arkansas with more than 187,000 people joining a Facebook group launched by a Muscatine resident called “Keep Bruno Safe.” So many people sought to catch a glimpse of Bruno that state officials had to take steps to control the crowds.

The excitement surrounding these sightings offer us a crystal-clear look into the minds of Iowans when it comes to the status and protection of our state’s wildlife. Internet comments on the recent news stories are remarkably consistent: “Leave them alone; I hope nobody shoots him.” Even Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources urged Iowans to simply let the animals be by keeping their distance.

Unfortunately, these rare, native carnivores have no protections in Iowa, meaning that they can be killed at any time, for any reason, without consequences. Circumstances could even get worse for some of them. While sightings of gray wolves are uncommon in Iowa and the animals are currently protected from attempts to kill them under the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now trying to revoke these critical protections.

Public surveys and studies throughout the country show that our native carnivores are worth far more alive than dead, not simply for their own sake but for their contributions to tourism and for their ecosystem services. Native carnivores keep deer herds healthier by selectively targeting sick deer before humans would even notice symptoms of disease. This is no small matter now that chronic wasting disease, a deadly epidemic, has found its way into Iowa’s deer herds.

Unless native carnivores are protected from unnecessary killing by state law, their return to Iowa seems like an unlikely prospect. A bill introduced during the 2020 legislative session would have made it illegal to shoot a black bear “outside of a hunting season.” Unfortunately, the bill did not advance far in the legislature and discussions to include mountain lions and wolves stalled.

That’s really too bad, because Iowans have already spoken if their public reaction to the reappearance of these charismatic species is any indication. Large carnivores like black bears, mountain lions and gray wolves once lived throughout the state but were hunted into oblivion in the 1800s. Now, however, we have a second chance to enjoy their presence, acknowledge their role in healthy ecosystems and enact legal protections for these species. The individual animals coming back to Iowa deserve a chance at life in our beloved wild spaces, and they are ambassadors for entire species that once thrived and flourished in our midst. It’s within the power of our elected state officials to recognize and act upon the conservation opportunity presented here, and it’s right that they do so.

Preston Moore is the Iowa State director for the Humane Society of the United States.

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