Thursday, October 28, 2010

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

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As I drove with a car full of Boy Scouts on the way to a camp out in western Indiana recently, we talked about what parts of the trip we were looking forward to. Most of this discussion was devoted to plans for fishing the next day. But in my turn, I mentioned the hope that we would hear coyotes overnight, since the sound of their yips and howls makes me feel like I’m in a wild place, even when my tent is pitched in a county park.

The prospect of hearing coyotes at night was anticipated with much less pleasure by other members of the party, and before long one scout asked with some urgency in his voice that we not mention the “c” word again.

We obliged. But the scout’s discomfort with the idea of toothy creatures later got me wondering about another, more formidable wild canine that once inhabited the Prairie State, the gray wolf. You may or may not have seen the accounts, but some wolves have begun to show up here again in recent years. [Photo: gray wolf, Gary Kramer/USFWS.]

Gray wolves were extirpated from Illinois before the Civil War, thanks to government sponsored predator control programs and reductions in the prey and habitat available to them. And “extirpated” is still their official status in the state. But since 2002, there have been at least six wolves killed here, five of them by hunters and another one by a vehicle.

In Illinois, it’s illegal to shoot gray wolves, which are protected federally under the Endangered Species Act, but hunters have done so mistaking them for coyotes, which can be killed legally.

If you’re not accustomed to the difficulties of quickly identifying wild animals at a distance, you might wonder how people make such a blunder. At five to six-and-a-half feet long from nose to tail tip, and weighing 70-100 pounds, an average wolf in the Midwest is nearly double the size of an average coyote. But size is notoriously difficult to gauge in the field, and the differences in color and shape that help separate coyotes from wolves are also fairly subtle.

So far, four of the wolves killed in Illinois have been confirmed as wild immigrants from Wisconsin, where the wolf population has risen from zero to nearly 700 over the past thirty years.

The wolves of Wisconsin are part of a larger population that includes nearly 3,000 individuals in Minnesota and another 600 or so in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In its robust growth, this western Great Lakes wolf population has exceeded the goals established for it under the Recovery Plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they were listed as an endangered species. As a result, there has been legal wrangling over whether or not to delist them in the recent years, including a review of evidence for delisting currently under way. (For more on delisting and all kinds of other cool information see

Could wolves become reestablished in Illinois? The ones that have been confirmed here to date are all males, which tend to disperse over far greater distances than females, and they alone can’t accomplish the job. (The current Midwestern record for distance—600 miles—was set by an individual that was trapped in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and subsequently killed in north central Missouri.) But there’s food enough for wolves in our now-overabundant herds of white-tailed deer, and probably sufficient habitat, too. In the long run, the real question may be whether the human population of the state can make the psychic space to accommodate them.


Upcoming presentations on sustainable environment sponsored by Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

November 3, 2010: “Save the Plants; Save the Planet.” Kay Havens, Director, Division of Plant Science and Conservation and Senior Scientist from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

November 17, 2010: “Animal Conservation and Habitat Preservation.” Norah Fletchall, Vice President of Conservation from the Indianapolis Zoo.

Both talks will be from noon - 1 p.m. at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, One E. Hazelwood Dr. in Champaign. Further details at