Wolf crossing

There’s no longer any doubt about timber wolves occupying and/or passing through Illinois.

A wolf was found dead in a soybean field just 20 miles from Ohio. Another wolf was shot near Henry, close to the Illinois River. This is less than 100 miles south by southwest of Rockford. The odds of having two wild dead wolves in officials’ hands in the mentioned areas are slim. This points to one conclusion: many more wolves are outside their current range. These mammals don’t look for the limelight; they are highly intelligent and elusive.

The Great Lakes timber wolves are doing what was predicted of them–they are repopulating the eastern half of the United States. Some are even heading west. Wolves now occupy northeast North Dakota, and one was killed near Spaulding, Neb. For the last three years, I’ve received numerous unconfirmed reports of wolf sightings in northern Illinois, two in northwest Illinois and one in southern Illinois. The northern Illinois sightings include two in Rock Cut State Park, two close to I-90 near Riverside Boulevard, one in north Boone County, and one on the Illinois Fox River, which included photos. The northwest Illinois sightings were at the Savanna Army Depot and the Mississippi Palisades State Park.

The most spectacular Illinois wolf report comes from southern Illinois resident Virgil Smith. Virgil was driving his pickup in the Shawnee National Forest when a totally exhausted buck white-tailed deer crossed the road in front of him. He stopped the truck where the deer crossed the road to watch it move away from his right. Suddenly, three creatures looking like majestic wolves approached from his left, running and heading straight for the truck, which was between them and the deer. The chasers hit the brakes and retreated 30 yards, where they paced anxiously in a perfect figure eight waiting for Mr. Smith to leave. Virgil said others have seen wolves in the Shawnee. It’s the general consensus among the outdoor-type residents in the Shawnee and the Shawnee area that wolves have been down here since 1998. Virgil Smith is an expert on cougars, and his knowledge of the natural world lends him credibility.

Where are the Great Lakes timber wolves headed when they leave Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin? They themselves probably don’t know. They’re just hoping to run into other wild lands. The following are places where they would do well, and some have probably already migrated there: the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas; the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois; the Blue Ridge Mountains in Kentucky and Tennessee; the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana; and last, but not least, the Appalachian Mountains.

Sightings in our area near Highway I-90 and Rock Cut State Park go along with the documentation that wolves and especially lone wolves travel long distances by following large highways. I’ve spoken to Wisconsin wolf biologist Adrian Wydavan on the highway migration subject many times. Adrian said wolves with tracking devices have been monitored moving along I-90 for more than 100 miles.

“Wolves are intrigued and frightened by the large highway, but most importantly, they know it goes somewhere,” Wydavan said. “The highway provides road kills for the wolves to eat, and they know the consequences of crossing, and those that do, cross at the absolute safest places, which are few. We’ve tracked lone wolves moving along I-90 sidestepping towns and cities built along the highway, then returning to I-90 when the metropolis runs out.”

But it’s hypothesized that some don’t return. Some going south swing west around Madison and end up in Mt. Horeb or farther west. Many confirmed wolf sightings occur in the Kickapoo Valley and a large area between Devil’s Lake and the Mississippi River. In April 2002, a wolf that refused to bypass metro Madison was killed by a car in front of a Culver’s Restaurant in Middleton. But many make it back to the highway, and the more southerly places are hearing the howls. Before the white man arrived, wolves occupied all the lower 48 states.

Because of the I-90 wolf travel in Wisconsin, the two sightings in Rock Cut State Park, and the two near I-90 and Riverside may have special meaning. Could it be that Rock Cut is a key connecting point? Could the bridge that connects Rock Cut proper with the Roland Olson swimming lake be a crossing point for wolves? The bridge juts high and safely over I-90. I threw the same question at Adrian Wydavan. He thought for a while, then he said, “It’s possible, especially at night.” He went on to explain that mid-northern Illinois is the likely crossing point for Wisconsin, Michigan and some Minnesota wolves.

“We know lone wolves from northwest and central Wisconsin follow I-90 to travel south, but now there is another exodus under way,” Wydavan said. “In winter, wolves are crossing Great Lakes ice from Michigan to Door County, Wis.”

“From there, they funnel south, staying east because of all the human population in the Green Bay area. As they go farther south, human habitat on their east swells and never subsides to their west, so they are funnel-pinched into kettle moraine country. If they keep moving, they are pinched by Highway 43 from Milwaukee and I-90. The wolves are then forced to cross either of the highways somewhere between Janesville and Beloit. This is not far from the Illinois border.”

After the wolves cross one of the highways, the ones that follow I-90 obviously move around or into Rock Cut. If I were a wolf, Rock Cut would look like an excellent place for a respite and an I-90 crossing. A little far-fetched, you think? Ask the people who on two separate occasions swore they were followed by a wolf as they walked their dog at Rock Cut. This kind of behavior happens more than it should in the Northland. Hunters often mistake wolves for coyotes. At Rock Cut two years back, horse riders were reporting big coyotes following them. If wolves are using Rock Cut State Park in any capacity, but especially if the park is a cross-over point, then the Illinois DNR and the public should be screaming about development along Highway 173.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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