Illinois Outdoors

Wolves occasionally are sighted in Illinois, with two found dead in the past five years.

Wolves, cougars and otters, oh my

September 16, 2007 at 06:30 AM

Some are visitors just wandering through the state. Others are Illinois natives that had all but vanished but are back in great numbers. And, some merely may be misidentified species.

They are the Prairie State’s rare wildlife breeds, ranging from wolves and mountain lions to bobcats and river otters.

Last fall, a couple of northern Illinois residents reported seeing what they believed to be gray wolves.

“At first I thought it was a giant coyote, but it didn’t have any of the markings of a coyote. It was all gray,” said Leo Ruefer of Rockton.
Illinois Outdoors

“I’ve seen wolves at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (in Wisconsin). I really think this was a wolf. It was too big for a coyote and didn’t have the right color.”

Wisconsin and Illinois wildlife officials doubt the wolf claims, but admit it’s possible. In the past couple of years, two wolves, identified as being from Wisconsin, were killed in Illinois. A third Wisconsin wolf shot in Indiana near the Ohio border had to travel through Illinois.

Two mountain lions also have been killed in Illinois since 2001.

“We are likely to see an occasional mountain lion over time because of increasing population in the Black Hills,” said Bob Bluett, the furbearer program manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

He said mountain lions killed here have been young adult males that were likely pushed out of the Black Hills. But if no female mountain lions are in Illinois, there is no chance of establishing a population.

Another cat is doing well in Illinois and the Midwest through natural recovery. The state has an estimated 2,200 bobcats south of Illinois 64 and an increasing number north of there.

“The highest numbers are in southern Illinois,” Bluett said. “I would go so far as to call them common down there. In other parts of the state, they are increasingly common, especially along the major river systems. They have been documented statewide in all but two counties.”

Another Illinois species with a fast-growing population is the river otter.

Illinois had fewer than 100 in the 1970s before the DNR started one of its most successful reintroduction programs. The DNR released 346 otters between 1994 and 1997, and the population has ballooned to between 10,000 and 15,000 today.

The river otter and bobcat populations have grown to the stage where sportsmen are pushing for hunting and trapping seasons for the species. An attempt to establish seasons died in the Statehouse two years ago.

The DNR also receives reports of wild hogs in Fulton County and southern Illinois, however Bluett doesn’t believe their populations are steadily increasing.

He is uncertain of the hogs’ origin; they might have escaped from farms or could have been released by owners wanting to establish a wild hog population for hunting.

Wildlife officials know the origin of another relative newcomer to the state. Nine-banded armadillos have been migrating from the South to Illinois. They first were reported here as early as the 1970s. Nearly 150 sightings have been reported since 1990, mostly in southern Illinois.

The state’s southern section also is home to Illinois’ four venomous snakes — copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake and massasauga.

However, some people believe they see them elsewhere in the state, especially the extremely rare massasauga.

Chris Phillips, herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said people get excited when they see a snake that looks like a massasauga.

“Unfortunately, the fox snake and several other snakes vibrate their naked tails when disturbed,” he said. “If they are in leaves or in the garage near cardboard boxes, it can make a sound. And people just jump to the conclusion that if they heard the rattle it must have been a rattlesnake.”