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Northern Indiana Wildlife of the Past – and Some Welcome Returns

Photography Provided

’Tis the season when many area residents, especially those in proximity to lakes and rivers, catch the always-enthralling glimpse, or perhaps even sustained view, of a bald eagle.

As residents of any longevity know, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, dating to perhaps the last 15-odd years. It’s representative of the return of a host of wildlife that many younger readers may not be aware was once virtually absent from northern Indiana in general, and the lakes areas of Marshall, Fulton, and Starke counties specifically.

Some residents will certainly remember a time, not so long ago, when coyotes were nowhere to be found in this area, though today their eerie howls and yips are no surprise from a forest or bog after sunset. Sightings of the elusive (and reclusive) bobcat are becoming more and more common as well, to the point that there is an entire Facebook page dedicated to their sightings around Indiana. Wildlife turkeys, too, were a rare sight some three decades ago, but are a regular one nowadays.

Along similar lines, many lakes area readers may find it nearly inconceivable that two species that have become as much an annoyance to many as an asset, the Canadian wildlife goose and whitetail deer, were so rare in northern Indiana during the mid-20th century that Hoosiers took multi-hour drives in hopes of viewing or hunting them. Now, of course, many of us strive to protect our property from their appearance in our own backyards.

According to the Nature Conservancy website at nature.org, the bald eagle was nearing extinction nationwide due to loss of habitat, pesticides, and overhunting, around 1900.

Bald eagles were considered extinct in Indiana by then, due to the loss of their wetland habitats. An occasional sighting was reported near Lake Maxinkuckee for a few years in the early 1900s, according to a landmark 1920 book titled “Lake Maxinkuckee: A Physical and Biological Survey,” which covered more than two decades of intensive study of the lake’s flora and fauna. For most of the following century, seeing a bald eagle at one of the area lakes was about as common as spotting a unicorn (well, perhaps slightly more common, but rare nonetheless).

wildlifeEfforts to remedy environmental damage, among other factors, however, led to a dramatic enough change that, by 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the endangered species list. Anecdotally, this is the same period when area residents began capturing photos of the majestic birds around local lakes preying upon coot birds and other appetizing fare.

Another recent avian phenomenon is the spread of the large (some 4’ tall when standing) sandhill crane across the region. It’s long been known that the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area hosts tens of thousands of the distinctive cranes as a stop-off point on their southern and northern migration routes. However, only over recent decades have residents across the state begun to hear their distinctive, rasping cry from fields and skies.

Local lakes have been the sites of sightings of other once-absent birds as well, including the large osprey, elegant swans, haunting loons, and even, on Lake Maxinkuckee, some freshwater pelicans.

The aforementioned whitetail deer had been hunted almost out of existence, as hard as it may be to believe today, by the early 20th century in Indiana and most of the Midwest. Stricter enforcement of hunting laws and reintroduction of the animals as early as the 1930s began to reverse the trend, though only in the past 50 or so years did they move towards being as prolific in number as they are today.

Speaking once again of coyotes, occasional sightings in the early- to mid-20th century led to some confusing references in local lore.

For example, in two separate articles in the Culver Citizen newspaper, local hunters reportedly bagged “wolves” in the Culver area during the 1940s.

The dating of such reports would be confusing, since state-sponsored bounties were paid on wolf scalps through much of the 1840s and 1850s through circuit courts in Marshall and Starke counties (fox “bounties” were paid in 1894 and 1895 for similar reasons – both species were considered a threat to farm stock, especially chickens), with wolf pelts worth $1.50 each, a tidy sum in the 19th century.

As it turns out, it was common for many small-town Hoosier newspapers to confuse coyotes with wolves, especially since common slang referred to coyotes as “prairie wolves.” It’s evident from photos in local papers that the “wolves” in question were too small to be actual wolves, and were coyotes instead.

In fact, Purdue’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources gives 1908 as the official date of elimination for wolves in northern Indiana, though even that source acknowledges the difficulty of precise dating, due to the confusion of wolves with coyotes.

In 2003 a lone wolf, tagged by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from a Wisconsin pack, was found dead near Fort Wayne, likely a scout sent to reconnoiter territory by its pack.

Bears were also largely eliminated from the northern Indiana lands they once roamed, though a large bear was reported to be killing livestock as late as 1908 in LaPorte and Starke counties (it was killed near Dunn’s Bridge), and reports insisted a bear was killed in Starke County around 1920.

wildlifeSuch reports become more plausible in light of 2015 headlines regarding a black bear that made its way from Michigan to South Bend and eventually LaPorte County. It was finally killed after trying to enter homes in Michigan City.

The mountain lion, or cougar, was extirpated from Indiana by the late 1800s. It’s not uncommon to run into folks who spend a fair amount of time outdoors who swear they’ve seen a mountain lion in this area, though Indiana’s DNR has only confirmed sightings considerably south of here, around a decade ago (though they receive regular reports of sightings, many of which wind up being mistakes or hoaxes). That said, the territorial range for mountain lions can be quite large, so the prospect of one passing through can’t be ruled out.

Less rare – but rare nonetheless – is the reclusive massasauga rattlesnake, still found particularly in marshlands in the area. Massasaugas are famously non-aggressive and tend toward flight rather than fight, though vintage newspapers contain a number of stories through the years of occasional bites, often of children. The Culver Citizen reported on July 1, 1915, that 7-year-old Bessie Seese (who lived about six miles west of Culver) was bitten on the ankle while hoeing corn. The ankle was tied with a rag and soaked in alcohol, and while little Bessie was “quite sick” all night, “the doctor found her recovering the next morning.”

In fact, no reports in local papers indicate any victims of the rattlesnake’s bite dying from the experience.

Perhaps the deadliest creature reported in the area (in this case, near Lake Maxinkuckee) is likely a fictional one. This didn’t stop the Culver Citizen from reporting on the killing, in 1915, of a catawompus in New Mexico, with the added note that a Captain Edward Gardner tackled (and killed) such a creature at Maxinkuckee in 1884.

The hideous catawompus, noted as “rarely seen in North America,” required a party of cowboys and hunters to take its life during the alleged 1915 incident.

That’s to be expected, since the newspaper described a monster resembling a crocodile but with a single horn sticking out of its crown. With long legs to enable speed (“so fast that it would require a speedy horse to keep pace with it”) and an 8’ spiked tail used for offense and defense, its body was allegedly covered with hard scales, just to add to its already absurdly threatening status.

Lest we forget, it also had feet resembling those of a bear, great claws and all, and measured some 21’ in length.

What such a strange, mammal-reptile hybrid might be doing in the Lake Maxinkuckee area (and why it apparently was suited to a climate like New Mexico but also northern Indiana) was unexplained. Perhaps the answer can be found at the Smithsonian, where the wildlife carcass was allegedly shipped.

An interesting angle to its name is the context for the word itself. While it serves as a colloquial term for a skewed or “catty-cornered” location or position, some earlier slang used it to refer to the mountain lion. There’s also the tradition of the legendary “wampus cat,” a sort of boogey-man monster that can take on any form the imagination could conjure.

All things considered, then, readers will likely have to resign themselves to the possibility of sighting a less exotic bit of wildlife – like a bald eagle – in the lakes area.

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