Wilderness Underfoot: The gray wolf in the Midwest

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StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11134209882954.jpg’, ”, ‘The gray wolf, sometimes called the timber wolf – Canis lupus populations are recovering in nearby Great Lakes states.’);

Most wolf sightings in our state are due to mistaken identity, but on rare occasions these creatures do show up.

Like much of the West, the Plains and the other Great Lakes states, Illinois was once home to the gray wolf. This magnificent creature was hunted to extinction in most areas of the U.S., primarily as a result of bounties. Hunters were paid for pelts, not so much because of the value of the furs, but because of a general fear and dislike of the wolf. By 1860, the animals had been largely eradicated from Illinois.

But today, wolves are protected by federal law throughout the U.S., with the exception of Alaska. Since 1974 wolf recovery efforts have been underway in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Healthy wolf packs now thrive in these states, so it’s only to be expected that sooner or later one of the animals will make its way down into our region.

In December of 2002, a gray wolf was shot by a hunter in Marshall County, Illinois, who thought he was firing at a coyote. Charges weren’t filed against the hunter because the animal was so far from its normal range, and its appearance in this region was unexpected. This is thought to be the only proven sighting of a wolf here since the early 1900s.

In August of 2003, a gray wolf was found dead in Randolph County, Indiana. Strangely, the young male wolf had traveled 400 miles from its territory in northern Wisconsin, having traveled through Illinois and across into Indiana. The wolf had long ago been captured as a pup and fitted with a transmitter. Although the transmitter eventually failed, it helped in identification of the animal. Wolves typically stray less than 70 miles from their central range, but this animal was apparently looking for a new pack, or a mate, or its own territory.

Another wolf had been shot in Missouri back in 2001, after traveling all the way down from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Without photos or other evidence, it is difficult to confirm an animal’s identity when a sighting is reported. Dogs and coyotes are often mistaken for wolves. Most sightings remain unproven.

Because they avoid human contact, wild wolves are not generally dangerous; they are far less likely to attack us than domesticated dogs. In the last century, there have been no confirmed reports of a wolf killing a human in the U.S.

From the April 13-19, 2005, issue

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