Although sightings of bears, mountain lions and wolves are relatively rare in Illinois, the three are now protected species under state law.

On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into legislation a bill that places gray wolves, American black bears and mountain lions, or cougars, under the state's protection. The Illinois Wildlife Code, which goes into effect Jan. 1, allows the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to manage the species for the protection of both wildlife and public safety.

The move was prompted by recent encounters with all three species, which are native to the state but haven't inhabited the area since the mid-1800s.

"Wolves, mountain lions and black bears have been absent from Illinois for more than 150 years. As the populations of these animals continue to grow, we expect to see occasional individuals dispersing from their current ranges into Illinois," IDNR Director Marc Miller said in a press release. "This law gives the Department the ability to create long-term management goals and to draft response protocols on managing human-wildlife conflicts with these three species."

Earlier this summer, a black bear made a 300-mile trek through the northern part of the state, although there have been no sightings since then, with the bear now believed to be in Wisconsin, The News-Gazette reported. In December, a female gray wolf was killed by a vehicle in LaSalle County. The Midwest's wolf population is found mostly in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; however, they are now making their way farther south, according to conservation officials.

And in November, an Illinois Conservation Police officer shot and killed a cougar in Whiteside County after it was spotted by a farm owner. The IDNR doesn't believe that cougars are currently breeding in Illinois, but individual big cats have occasionally trekked into the state, with three confirmed sightings between 2002 and 2008.

Before now, only the gray wolf had protection in Illinois as an endangered species, meaning it cannot be killed unless it presents an imminent threat to people. Now, this legislation extends similar protections to black bears and mountain lions. Although, the new law also allows landowners to apply for nuisance permits to kill animals that are not immediate threats to people or property.

At any rate, state officials don't expect this trio of species to re-colonize, given that Illinois doesn't have enough suitable space to house all three populations. According to habitat models, only about 14.7 percent of the state is suitable for black bears, 6.6 percent for mountain lions and 14 percent for gray wolves.