BY LORENA VILLA-PARKMAN
Illinois shouldn´t be crying wolf. At least not yet.?? There have been unverified sightings of wolves in northern Illinois over the years since the population was entirely wiped out in 1860. But it´s unlikely the gray wolf will make a comeback here, according to experts.
“It is a very populous state and there are very few opportunities for wolves to thrive,” said Pat Goodman, animal behaviorist and curator at Wolf Park, Ind. “There have been sightings from time to time, but the question is whether or not a wolf could establish a breeding population that could sustain itself. I doubt it.” ??
That´s because unpopulated areas and open forests are harder to find. Illinois is around 90 percent farmland. Ranchers and farmers are protective of their lands and stock and wolves are perceived as threats.
“They are not great animals to have living in your backyard,” said Lawrence Heaney, curator of mammals at The Field Museum. “They´ll eat your dog and your cat, although they almost never bother people, but they are perfectly happy eating the animals we eat or live with.”
??Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota already have a healthy population of gray wolves. There were 687 wolves in Michigan, 782 in Wisconsin and 2921 in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota DNR Report: Distribution and Abundance of Wolves in Minnesota, 2007 – 2008.
The wolf population has recovered so successfully in the Great Lakes states that in 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the list of endangered species Act.
“They need lower human population and good preying source at least,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore program leader of the Division of Fish and Wildlife for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.??
Packs originate when young wolves leave their family to find a mate and set a territory of their own. Sometimes they will travel hundreds of miles looking for a suitable area to populate.
“If they are in a situation where the density is high and where there aren’t spaces available for them, they just keep looking,” said Heaney.
Wolves are moving into other states as well.
A lone gray wolf crossed from Oregon to California in the border south of Klamath Falls on Dec. 28. The two and a half year male known as OR-7 is the first confirmed wild wolf in California since 1924. “Maybe this is not the first one lined to go to California,” said Patrick Valentino, director of planning and development and coordinator for Northern California Wolf Center activities. “We don’t know if they are more wolves on their way and maybe, at some point a male and female will meet here, have their pups and create a pack in California.”
By looking for new territories, wolves are not only searching for food and a place to claim, but also they are probably protecting themselves from genetic inbreeding, Valentino said.
Through collars with radio transmitters, experts have found out that wolves travel around 50 to 200 miles in search for a new territory. Some of them have been known to travel 500 to 1000 miles. “If a wolf from Minnesota heads south and survives, if it´s not ran over by a car or shot, it might very well keep looking for a place where there are other wolves,” Heaney said. “But if they find a place where there is food and space but no possible mates, they are not going to stay.”
Studies in Minnesota and Wisconsin show there are some fluctuations in the number of wolves that live in the area, but it´s still a stable population. “The good habitats are occupied by them, so there aren´t any nice empty spots for new packs and they have to go looking somewhere else,” Goodman said.
Minnesota wolves are known to have territories as large as 40 sq. miles. “But that ranges from 20 to 200 sq. miles,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore program leader of the Division of Fish and Wildlife for the Minnesota department.??
The state of Minnesota has a very healthy wolf population because they were more difficult to kill in it´s forest terrain. “There were extensive efforts to exterminate them in the neighboring states and they were effective,” Stark said. “In Minnesota we have pretty expansive forest areas that hid wolves and when we eliminated aerial gunning or poisoning as killing techniques, the wolf population started to come back.”??
Minnesota wolf population is connected to the extensive wolf population in Canada. “Having that source helped local wolves thrive. Whereas Wisconsin and Michigan are disconnected from those packs because of the lakes. However, once Minnesota got occupied then their populations started to get a new influx of wolves,” Stark said.??
So, why are wolves shunning Illinois as their place of residence? ??
“They need food,” Heaney said. “In Illinois there is plenty of it, the deer population is dense, they have that.”??
The problem comes when wolves can´t find a place to get on with their lives without being disturbed. “They have to be able to go about their hunting and not be harassed, so if they end up in an area with lots of people or domestic dogs, it bothers them,” Heaney said. “Lots of them are killed by hunters.”
??When the young wolves disperse from their original territory it´s a time of very high mortality for them. They expose themselves to all kind of unknown dangers. “Most of the dispersers are not going to survive,” Heaney said.??
“There is a lot of chance involved when they leave their pack,” Goodman said. “They need a viable place to call home and Illinois is not it.”
??“I think it´s absolutely inevitable that we are going to have wolves coming back to Illinois,” said Heaney. “But it won´t be common and it´s pretty unlikely for them to establish. There is not enough space where they wouldn´t feel threatened.”
View Wolf distribution in a larger map