Wolves in Illinois?

 POST 990

There is no doubt wolves do venture down from Wisconsin to Illinois. They don’t last because of poor habitat, especially because of all the people and agriculture. Dead wolves have have found in Illinois and even crossed the state and made it through most of Indiana, almost to Ohio.

Story in the Rockford Register Star. Wolves among us? By Doug Goodman







  1. Mike Lommler Avatar
    Mike Lommler

    I’m curious as to how it will work out. I’m originally from Illinois (now living in Montana) and have been wondering when wolves might wander on down. It’s true that in most of the state the habitat is pretty poor. If they could navigate the northern three quarters of the state a few might be able to settle in the Shawnee. Personally, I’d like to see them back, habitat permitting.

  2. Moose Avatar

    A wolf from the UP of Michigan made it as far as Missouri in 2002 – was killed after being mistaken for a coyote harassing sheep. I agree the Upper Great Lakes wolf pop face some tough odds against establishing themselves anywhere south of their current domain. I even have some doubts about their future success in the northern part of the LP of Mich.

  3. Jeff Avatar

    There is a lot of dense woodland throughout the Ohio Valley, Cumberland Plateau and Ozarks if idividuals could ever happen upon each other in any of these or other chunks of forest scattered around. There is certainly adequate prey throughout the east with whitetail populations out of conrtol is most locales. Certainly wolves do interface in suburban areas thoughout Europe and Asia.

  4. Howard Avatar

    There is actually alot of great wolf habitat in the East…unfortunately it’s not connected to the Upper Midwest. While prey resources (white tails) in states like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are more than adequate, I don’t think there is enough wild land in these states for wolves to reestablish. There is plenty of prey and habitat in the Northeast (especially Upper New England), but I don’t anticipate wolves making it across the lower Midwest. Excluding norther Lower Michigan, I think the nearest block of eastern land that might be able to support wolves is the Allegheny region of north central Pennsylvania.
    In terms of human reintroduction of wolves to the East, I personally think we should mainly focus on the red wolf. In particular, I am extremely interested in the relationship between Canis lycaon and Canis rufus, which genetic studies suggest are closer to each other than either is to Canis lupus. I suspect C. rufus and C. lycaon may be northern and southern races of the same wolf species. There’s still alot of work to be done on all the eastern canids. Red wolves may be good candidates for wolf reintroduction in regions where such action is being contemplated… they’re an endangered species in need of additional wild populations, and they’re specialists on white-tailed deer and medium-sized prey items like raccoons and rabbits (I think in pre-Colonial days, the red wolf’s range followed the range of white-tails, and gray wolves followed the range of larger herding animals like woodland caribou and Eastern elk).

  5. Layton Avatar

    Why would it make any difference what kind of Canis “whoever” they put in the East??

    According to the “experts” here it didn’t matter what kind they put in the Northwest. Seems that wolves travel so much they’re all mixed up anyway. Or is it only that way on THIS side of that big river?


  6. Howard Avatar

    Hi Layton:

    The major difference is that the wolves in the West are definitely Canis lupus, with debate focused mainly on questions of subspecies (which of course, has been discussed frequently on this blog!). The red wolf, Canis rufus is an entirely different species. The preservation/restoration of this unique species is important to conservationists. Furthermore, unlike gray wolves from Canada versus gray wolves from Idaho, there is a significant ecological difference between gray and red wolves. It is my understanding that one of the reasons the reintroduced wolves were taken from their respective locales in Alberta and British Columbia is that they were preying primarily on the ungulates that were most dominant in Idaho and Yellowstone (mainly elk of course, but I believe that some of the wolves that went to Yellowstone had also been feeding on bison). Red wolves, owing to significantly smaller size, slighter proportions, and different natural history, seem to be limited to smaller prey. Admittedly, it is difficult to know too many specifics on the natural ecology of red wolves since they were pretty much exterminated before anyone really bothered to study them. Our knowledge must be taken primarily from post-1980s North Carolina, so it is difficult to know for sure what red wolves would do in a multi-ungulate system (the only ungulate in current red wolf range is the white-tail), but there, they eat deer and also a significant amount of medium-smaller animals (raccoons on number 2 on the menu after deer). However, the animal that is now sometimes called the Eastern wolf (the best example of them being the wolves of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario) is very similar to the red wolf in size and genetics and as I said, may indeed be the same species. In Algonquin, these wolves eat deer and beaver, but do not seem to be able to tackle moose. Gray wolves of course can and do prey on moose. We also know that red/eastern wolves once lived in the deep south of the United States where white-tails would have been the dominant and in some places only, ungulate. Adding this to the fact that most of the red wolf’s former range was dense forest with a much lower ungulate carrying capacity than we see in the East today, it is reasonable to think of the red wolf as a small forest wolf that was more specialized on deer than larger herding ungulates. Since the East is currently inundated with critters like white-tails and raccoons, red wolves are probably the best ecological match.

    As of now, the red wolf is considered a separate species, but, as I said, there is alot of work to be done on the eastern canids. Further research will be very important in clarifying the exact genetic identities of the red wolf, the ‘eastern wolf’, and the eastern coyote. If such research serves to demonstrate definitive species status for the red and/or eastern wolf, then the conservation argument certainly holds. If all wolves east of the Mississippi prove to be a genetic hodgepodge of the genus Canis, then such differentiation for an reintroduction effort naturally becomes moot. In that case, the major impetus for any type of wolf reintroduction (there were certainly wolves of some type in the East) would be more ecological in scope… barring the exceptional 70+ lb. animal that is VERY occasionally documented, eastern coyotes, though larger than their western cousins, are not the ecological equivalent of wolves. If reintroduction was being contemplated for Upper New England —and that is by far the most likely choice– gray wolves are a good choice too. Originally, deer were rare in the boreal forests of the northern Northeast, and the dominant ungulates were moose and woodland caribou. At this geographic extreme, gray wolves may have been the dominant (or only) wolf species. In parts of the Northeast, gray and red wolves may have shared range in the past. Assuming the red wolf is indeed a valid species, then I personally would give it reintroduction priority because of its extremely endangered status. If both red and gray wolves were shown to have both existed in the Northeast, I’d actually like to reintroduce them both in places where current conditions could support both species…but it will hard enough getting one wolf.
    To many of us, it does matter. That is why I believe a great deal of research should go into untangling the identities, former ranges, and current natural history needs of the eastern wolves. I do indeed believe wolves should be reestablished in parts of the East, but there is a question of which wolf. If anyone has more or better (or contradictory) info on these matters, I’d be extremely interested.

    On a final note, it’s also important to understand that people with conservation interests must sometimes make choices in a less than pristine situation. Let’s say for example that it turns out that the red wolf is indeed a valid species, but all currently living red wolves have some degree of coyote genetic material. We can either consider them simple hybrids and declare the red wolf completely gone, or we can consider them red wolves with a few coyote genes. The best scenario of course is if red wolves are 100% genetically pure. But if that is no longer a possibility, then we have to work with what we have. In some cases, what’s left is not workeable. But, if it turned out that the red wolves in NC are something like 95% pure with a few coyote alleles, I’d consider them red wolves. As important as genes is ecology… in the wild, red wolves occupy a higher trophic level than coyotes, pack more than coyotes, and when given the choice, generally prefer other red wolves as mating partners (I believe most red wolf-coyote hybridization occurs at the fringe of red wolf range when dispersing animals find coyotes but few or no other wolves)… red wolves do seem to behave and function ecologically as distinct species. There are lots of other examples (which are actually less potentially significant since it involves subspecies rather than full species crosses, but they are excellent examples of having to work with what you’ve got). The Florida panther was severely inbred with a low of 30 individuals in the ’80s… additional female cougars were brought in from Texas to provide genetic relief. And this essentially destroyed coryi as a distinct subspecies. But it also saved the species in Florida. I agree with that decision. The difference between a Florida with panthers and a Florida without is much greater than the difference between sister subspecies. Elk is another example. The Eastern elk, Cervus elaphus mississippiensis, is extinct. Rocky Mountain elk, C.e. nelsoni, have been brought in to several eastern states. I consider this a reintroduction, not an exotic dumping. It would be great if we could restore the exact gene pool, but we cannot, and so we face a choice of bringing in Western elk or having none at all. Since all North American elk are Cervus elaphus, bringing in Western elk constitutes reintroducing the species for me.

    Of course, the whole question of reintroduction to the East becomes moot if wolves from Canada do it themselves. At present, Canadian policy doesn’t lend itself to wolves surviving very long in the borderlands, but in the past decade, I think a few wolves have popped up very near the US border, so perhaps its possible.

  7. chris Avatar

    Something to keep in mind when considering any new reintroduction sites for red wolves is the ability to control hybridization with coyotes. It has been managed wonderfully by the USFWS biologists in NC. The geography of the recovery area helps tremendously. The current recovery area in NC is surrounded on 3 sides (north, east, and south) by significant bodies of water that serve as barriers for coyotes. Therefore the biologists could start dealing with coyotes from east to west with the west being the only direction newcomers could enter the recovery area.

    In the northeast, Maine’s North Woods and NY’s Adirondack State Park seem to be the most suitable sites for gray wolves because of the abundant prey (moose and deer) and low road density. Not only is it extremely difficult for wolves to cross over from Canada but there doesn’t seem to be enough support among locals, including state game agencies, or the FWS for that matter.

  8. Howard Avatar

    That’s true. Assuming reintroduction was acceptable to humans, the single biggest obstacle for red wolves would be hybridization with coyotes. In order for red wolf reintroduction to succed, biologists would have actively control coyotes in the management area until wolf density became high enough. I am assuming that if wolf density was high enough, they would begin to kill/exclude coyotes rather than mate with them… if that is NOT the case…and red wolves will mate with any available Canis… then places like NE North Carolina and offshore islands will probably have to be the extent of wild red wolves.

  9. Chris H. Avatar
    Chris H.

    The Land Between the Lakes Region in western Kentucky was the orignal reintroduction site for the red wolf. Unfortunately the Fish & Wildlife Service did a poor job of educating the locals- many of which were kicked of the LBL when the TVA took control. There was also a faction of the animal rights wing that did not like the idea of killing coyotes on LBL at the time.
    The LBL is still a great area for reintroduction. No conflicts with cows or farmers. ,as time goes by I think the people have softened up a bit on their anti-wolf sentiment. The coyotes are still a problem though.
    The Land is now under the “protection” of the U.S. Forest Service

  10. Susie Avatar

    I live in Illinois. We live in the country… 30 minutes from Charleston. My husband and I have seen wolves twice now, while driving to our home. I don’t know what kind it is, and really didn’t think there were wolves here. The last one we saw had to be about 90 pounds. I say this because he was about the size of our Golden Retriever. We also live near a state park. We have many white tail deer here. Any idea of what kind of wolves we are seeing? We also have coyotes, but I know for sure that these are wolves. I have seen coyotes in our yard before….this was a wolf. Any information you give me will be much appreciated. Also, when we have seen the wolves, they were alone. If I should happen to walk up to one of them unintentionally, would they attack a human? Or run away like the coyotes do?

  11. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Is there any rural and semi-wooded connection to Wisconsin from where you live?

  12. Salle Avatar

    I wonder what part of Illinois she is in. I do know that there is the possibility of a combination of wooded and farm lands that could provide corridors from Wisconsin. Even if she is located pretty far south in the state.

    To answer her question about behavioral stuff, it’s most likely that they would run away like the coyotes do, unless they happen to be upwind of you and are curious, then they might get close enough to get a good look or smell and then take off.

  13. Buffaloed Avatar

    These could only be gray wolves if they are wolves at all. Some people call them timber wolves but they are the same as gray wolves. Canis lupus.

  14. Nicole Avatar

    They sound like grey/timber wolves. If they are curious, they may come around to see who you are, but they are skittish.They use the fight/flight response so they will run before they fight. They believe that they are in your territory and do not wish to fight you. They may share “your territory” with you. Wolves are said to have poor eyesight, so, to them, you look scary. Also, if there are coyotes in the area after your wolf sighting, they are not wolves. For some reason, wolves don’t allow coyotes to live with them. If Coyotes are still around, then the wolves may be passing through.
    P.S. I believe you are very lucky to see wild wolves, simply because wolves are very hard to see in their natural environment.

  15. Grant Avatar

    I had lived in Montana for a little while on a large ranch. I now live in ohio. I had seen the controversy between man and wolf out there and it sickened me that people are so ignorant that they can really think that with society changing that a large system of wolves could co habitate with humans in the west. The area out there is immense for the wolves to be able to feed, and they are having problems with over predadation. If someone was to reintroduce them here in the east i can see devastating results to the wildlife populations that we have worked so hard to get for the last forty years

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I see you know as much as wolves in the mid-West as you do about wolves in Montana. You know nothing.

    Wolves were not introduced to the mid-West. Wolves were never exterminated in Minnesota. Since the 1970s, the Minnesota wolf population has grown. Wolves have migrated from Minnesota to Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan.

    Occasional a wolf wanders from there south or southeast.

    I don’t know if these folks really saw wolves in Illinois, but wolves have migrated down before. Wolves in the the Great Lakes seem to get along pretty well with most folks. There is less controversy. They don’t seem to be weenies like many Montana livestock operators.

    Ralph Maughan
    Pocatello, Idaho

  17. JimT Avatar

    There have been rumored sightings in the wilds of northeast Vermont and New Hampshire, including some tracks, but nothing definitive. Nina of Defenders would know much more about the status of efforts for reintroduction..too bad we don’t have her here.

    There has been ongoing debate about the species of wolf that was historically in the Northeast due to the moose question as prey and what species could be an effective predator. I was of the impression that debate was ongoing, not solved.

    I also remember from a meeting with Nina when we were back East that opponents of reintroduction were willing to concede these areas are historic wolf habitat, but that particular species of wolf is no more due to interbreeding with red wolves and coyotes, so there is no “native” wolf to reintroduce, so all efforts should be dropped. Ralph…ring any bells? Anyone?

    WEENIES? LMAO…WELFARE WEENIES could be the next term of art for public land ranchers there…Good one Ralph…

  18. JimT Avatar

    Grant…having lived for the past 14 years in Vermont before returning to Colorado..

    What wildlife are you talking about that folks have been so concerned in re-introducing? I am curious…

    And it is habitat disruption that has caused the most displacement of traditional species like raccoons, fishers, otter, even moose. That disruption, the trophy house building on former agricultural land is the biggest danger to a healthy wildlife population, not wolves. So long as the developers stay the hell out of the Northeast Kingdom and Baxter Park areas..wolves would do just fine and humans would experience minimal disruption simply because those areas are largely devoid of population. Most of the folks I knew in Norwich were absolutely thrilled when the paper had a rumored sighting of a catamount, or a wolf, or when a bobcat population was reported as thriving. Reintroduction in the Adirondacks might be more problematic due to all the inholdings in the Park, but if folks are willing to deal with facts, and not be content to continually demonize the wolf, they might be part of something magical.

  19. JimT Avatar

    Ralph, I think the major thing that has hindered the Canadian wolves from wandering over to the Northeast is the fact that the St. Lawrence rarely freezes over completely anymore, so there is no land bridge over, so to speak.

    Climate change strikes again.

  20. Salle Avatar

    Wolves also don’t migrate from Canada due to a land swath along the St Lawrence River that allows hunting of wolves. Ms Struhsaker, from VT made that case several years ago when advocating for wolves in Maine, in particular. She said, “We have geriatric moose in these areas, we need wolves” [to help that specie with it’s genetic integrity].

    As an aside, my friend from Wind River IR, Wyoming gave me a bumper sticker, recently, that says:

    “Real men aren’t afraid of wolves” !!!! ; )

    I put it up in my window so the “whiners” who pass by can see it. I live in a loudly wolf-hating community where you normally see “Smoke a pack a week” bumper stickers.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan