Gray wolves not likely to howl across Illinois
Chicago - 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, including a handful in 2011. 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 in Chicago.
"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 2,921 in Minnesota, according to a recent report by DNRs in those states.
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.
Wolf 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.
By looking for new territories, wolves are not only searching for food and a place to claim, but also they are likely protecting themselves from genetic inbreeding.
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 1,000 miles. "If a wolf from Minnesota heads south and survives, if it's not run 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.
Wolves in upper Midwest states are known to have territories as large as 40 square miles. "But that ranges from 20 to 200 square miles," said Dan Stark, large carnivore program leader of the Division of Fish and Wildlife for Minnesota.
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."