Illinois hunting and fishing

Three wolves in Illinois in 2010?

March 18, 2010 at 10:44 AM

This has already been an unusually busy year for wolf watchers in Illinois.

Since January, at least three credible reports of large canines have surfaced out of northern Illinois.

Closest to home was a shiny-toothed rascal shot near Walnut in Bureau County last week by a coyote hunter. Though details are sketchy and genetic testing has not been conducted, that may well be the sixth wild wolf confirmed in Illinois and the second this year.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Another large, wolf-like canine was shot near Big Rock in northern Illinois in January according to Bob Bluett, furbearer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. “It was taller than the guy when it was hanging from its hind feet,” Bluett said.

And just this week Bob Coine of Oregon came forward with a trail-camera picture taken on March 9 that appears to show a live wolf walking along the edge of a corn field.

“A picture doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s sure a whopping good candidate,” Bluett said.

Beyond reports that include some proof are a rash of recent sightings from near Tiskilwa, Toulon and elsewhere.

Is Illinois suddenly overrun with canis lupus? Will the soulful howls of timber wolves become commonplace in the Prairie State?

“It’s hard to tell a wolf from a coyote at 150 yards. If somebody comes clean, it’s been my perception that (federal investigators) can accept the fact a mistake was made,” Bluett said. “But it somebody starts shipping hides and doing other stuff, they get in a corner as to how much they can follow federal rules for endangered species and where that line is.”

Most biologists believe wolf numbers in Illinois are very low. That view may change if somebody turns in a female wolf or some young pups.

But late winter is prime time for young male wolves to get booted from their pack and to wander.  Those are the wolves we’ve seen in Illinois, whose wanderings prove the journey from Wisconsin is very doable for a four-legged canine looking for love.

The first confirmed wild wolf in Illinois was shot on Dec. 29, 2002 by Randy Worker in Marshall County. I still remember fielding that call and thinking, “No way is this a wolf.”

Since then we’ve had three other wolves killed in Illinois and a handful dispatched in neighboring states. That’s why I’m now quicker to believe callers who cry wolf. Actually, I’m surprised when a year passes without a dead wolf.

Then again, barring changes in federal status, wolf reports may dry up in the future. More hunters are aware it is illegal to shoot wolves in Illinois, since the canines are protected as both a federal and state endangered species. I bet a handful of timber wolves had already bit the dust in recent years without so much as a mention.

That’s true even though wolf shooters typically go unpunished in Illinois. “It’s hard to tell a wolf from a coyote at 150 yards,” Bluett said. “If somebody comes clean, it’s been my perception that (federal investigators) can accept the fact a mistake was made.”

Beyond concerns about repercussions, wolves are starting to create other worries.

Coine fears for personal safety. “I am genuinely concerned,” he said. “I’ve spent time in wolf country in Alaska, the Arctic and Canada. Wolves are predators and there are certain things that trigger them to attack.”

Others says top-line predators could put even more pressure on the Illinois deer herd.

Personally I see both concerns as an overreaction given the current status — even in the wake of news that a jogger was apparently killed by two wolves in Alaska this week.

In my mind, while there is limited suitable wolf habitat in parts of Illinois, there are too many people, cars and roads for the big predators to last very long.

Then again, as Bluett notes, “I think (wolves) have proven to be a lot more adaptable than people once thought.”

A lot more widespread in Illinois this year, too.