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Wolf population on the rise in Illinois

Wolf Hunt

CHICAGO (AP) - The wolf was believed to be a lone male expelled by a pack in Wisconsin. The hunter who shot him in northwestern Illinois, allegedly keeping his skull as a trophy, was the first person in the state ever prosecuted for shooting a wolf under federal endangered species laws.

The incident, resolved in 2013 when the hunter pleaded guilty and paid a $2,500 fine, comes amid evidence of a modest but perceptible uptick in the number of wolves roaming across the Wisconsin border into heavily populated and widely farmed Illinois.

Illinois' own once-thriving wolves were hunted to extinction by the 1860s. But since the first confirmed sighting in the state in 150 years, in 2002, wolf sightings have gone from rare to regular - with at least five in the last three years.

"We used to joke with our counterparts in Wisconsin that, 'Yeah, one day your wolves will be coming to Illinois,'" said Joe Kath, the endangered species manager at Illinois' Department of Natural Resources. "Well, we've reached that day."

That has state wildlife officials contemplating another day - still way off - when there are so many wolves in Illinois they'll have to ask residents to decide if they want to encourage the growth of a wolf population or strictly limit it, possibly through hunting or trapping.

"It's too early to ask the question, but it's not too early to prepare for a time when the question might have to be asked," said Kath. That preparation, he said, has already begun, including by drafting plans on how to manage wolf packs should they become established.

The North American wolves, known as gray or timber wolves, have proven resilient.

Their numbers in the lower 48 states fell to a few dozen by 1970 but dramatically rebounded with federal protections and wildly successful reintroduction programs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

Wolves weren't threatened by extinction in Alaska, which by far has the most - 7,000 to 11,000 wolves - of any U.S. state. Minnesota is second, with 2,200 wolves.

In Wisconsin, which shares a 150-mile border with Illinois, wolf numbers went from few to none in the 1970s to more than 800 today.

The core of Wisconsin's wolf population is in its forested north. But Kath noted that the wolves have on their own moved south, and one pack is near Beloit, Wis., only miles from Illinois. Also, lone wolves can leave their packs and roam more than 500 miles away in search of potential mates.

Several shootings of wolves have occurred in JoDaviess County, which hugs the Wisconsin border in the northwestern Illinois.

That was where Earl Sirchia, of Elgin, killed the wolf that drew the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. He was accused of taking the wolf's skull, and prosecutors said investigators had a photo he'd taken of himself with the dead wolf.

Sirchia faced a maximum one-year prison sentence but instead pleaded guilty. No one answered calls from The Associated Press to a phone number listed for Sirchia. His Bartlett-based attorney, Robert J. Krupp, hung up when the case was mentioned.

In another case from 2011 in the same county, Jason T. Bourrette and his friend Perry Vesely, both of Hanover, were hunting on Crazy Hallow Road when they saw what they thought was a coyote - which are legally hunted year around - tossing a mole up and down in its jaws, according to police reports.

After Bourrette shot and killed it, Vesely cursed and said, "Ya know, this could be a wolf,'" he later told an investigator. In the interview, he added about wolves: "I'm sure sooner or later we're going to have a pile of them down here, I'm afraid." Differences between wolves and coyotes can be difficult to spot, especially at a distance. But wolves are typically twice as large as coyotes, weighing as much as 115 pounds, and have larger muzzles and shorter, more rounded ears.

Bourrette and Vesely were charged under state conservation law, but the charges were later dismissed.

Earlier in 2013, the U.S. government declared victory in a four-decade campaign to rescue the gray wolf and lifted the federal protection in the Great Lakes area, including far-northern Illinois. But killing wolves anywhere in Illinois is still prohibited.

Enough wolves are now roaming into Illinois that hunters need to remain cautious, and Kath said it was possible that wolves could eventually, years from now, become commonplace in the state.

There are plenty of white-tail deer, Midwestern wolves' favorite food, in Illinois. But only 14 percent of Illinois land is suitable habitat for wolves, which prefer forests, according to a 2013 study by Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The northwest, west-central Illinois and the southern tip of the state were deemed most suitable.

And then there is the wolf's by most accounts undeserved reputation as bloodthirsty - see "Little Red Riding Hood" - that points to the main factor in wolves' future prospects in Illinois: humans.

"It's really not that they can't survive in Illinois. They could," said Kath. "The question is, will the general public allow them to survive?"

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ahuhn3 January 03 2014 at 8:57 PM

save the wolves, sure am happy to see the increase in numbers here in Illinois.. bigger power @ work

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Barry January 03 2014 at 1:50 PM

a wolf was very educational for the indian at one time. i think northern illinois is too crowded for them to exist

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BOB January 02 2014 at 11:27 PM

The wolf reintroduction is all part of agenda21. Get ready to live in zones separated from nature.

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BOB January 02 2014 at 11:18 PM

The idiots that want to promote the wolf needs to spend some time in the Northern U.P. where they've been slaughtering the deer in the yarding areas when the snow conditions are to their advantage. A total blood bath! We've lost 70% of our deer herd. Livestock have been hit along with people's dogs.

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kelly.schueman January 02 2014 at 10:15 PM

I hope we follow Oregon's lead and protect them. The lies being told about wolves are heart breaking. There are 2 great places in, or near Illinois to learn about wolves. Big Run Wolf Ranch in Lockport Illinois is a federally licensed wildlife education facility. Wolf Park in Layette Indiana is amazing. There had not been one documented case of a healthy wolf attacking a person, on this entire continent, until recently, at the same time Animal Planet has been turned into an animal hating channel.

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2 replies to kelly.schueman's comment
BOB January 02 2014 at 11:18 PM

kelly, I don't think you know much about wolves in the wild. A wolf ranch...LOL

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kltsandydune January 08 2014 at 4:58 PM

kelly, your right on with your assessment. You are one of the smart ones. Hope you read my comment @kltsandydune@aol.com Keep up the good work. Larry

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sixiron806 January 02 2014 at 8:12 PM

The wolf is a treasure.It should not be hunted.Neither should the deer that it kills to survive.When
will we learn that in the end we are killing ourselves.JP

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1 reply to sixiron806's comment
BOB January 02 2014 at 11:23 PM

Ever see a wolf kill? Moose, deer...it happens all the time in the woods here and it ain't pretty. Ever been stalked by wolves? I have!

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Ralph January 02 2014 at 7:53 PM

I tipically love wolves and would hate to see any of them destroyed because they are as they are.
My Grandaughter buys me a wolf calander every year because of my love for them.

There is no reason that they could be relocated rather than to kill them off.

Ralph Jones www.ralphjonesworkshop.com

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lneslusan January 02 2014 at 5:25 PM

When I spotted my first wolf I was stunned. I saw a pack of 6 running across a trail while I was riding my horse, Actually it was my horse that spotted them. They were beautiful and very big, Probabaly looked bigger because I was riding alone. The Alpha was grey and leading the pack. He was well over 130 lbs very heavy and muscular. They were moving along a ridge above and in front of me and were absolutely silent. I would never had noticed had my horse not turned his head to see what they were.

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Frank January 02 2014 at 5:09 PM

They are a scourge that our ancestors tried for decades to eradicate. Cold blooded killers with the intelligence to create havoc. Start the season now. It may be too late already

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lneslusan January 02 2014 at 5:25 PM

You are so very misinformed.

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kelly.schueman January 02 2014 at 10:17 PM

Or intentionally spreading lies. That tragically seems to be common these days

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BOB January 02 2014 at 11:33 PM

exactly Frank, The Wolf and other predator reintroductions are a part of Agenda21 that was laid out back in '92. A managed population would be good but here in the U.P. these animals have been slaughtering our deer and moose herd like nothing else. When the snow conditions are right they hunt the deer yards and kill everything they can. The deer don't stand a chance when the crusted snow is above chest height and the wolves run right on top.

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shelaz1 January 02 2014 at 4:44 PM

We have reported sightings in Southern Illinois.

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