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,” Kath said.
That preparation, he said, already has 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.
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 explained, of their own accord, the wolves have moved south.
There’s even one pack near Beloit, Wis., only miles from Illinois.
Several shootings of wolves have occurred in JoDaviess
County, which hugs the Wisconsin border in the northwestern Illinois. That’s
where Earl Sirchia, of Elgin, killed the wolf that drew the scrutiny of federal
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
After Bourrette shot and killed it, Vesely cursed and said,
“Ya know, this could be a wolf,”‘ he told an investigator later.
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.”
Both men were charged under state conservation law, but the
charges were later dismissed.
Sirchia, who had faced a maximum one-year prison sentence,
pleaded guilty months before his trial in Chicago was set to start.
He was accused of taking the wolf’s skull, and he allegedly
had a photograph taken of himself with the dead wolf — a picture investigators
later used in evidence, said Timothy Chapman, the assistant the U.S. attorney in
Chicago who handled Sirchia’s case.
No one answered repeated calls to a residential phone number
for Sirchia. His Bartlett-based attorney, Robert J. Krupp, hung up when a
reporter called and mentioned the case.
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-north Illinois. The state protection
remains, meaning killing wolves anywhere in Illinois remains prohibited.
Enough wolves are roaming into Illinois that hunters today
need to at least entertain the possibility that the animal in their sights they
think is a coyote might actually be a wolf. Wolves are taller and have blockier
But could wolves become commonplace in Illinois years or
decades from now? It is possible, Kath said.
There is plenty of Midwest wolves’ favorite food: White-tail
deer are abundant in Illinois. On the other hand, only 14 percent of Illinois
land is suitable habitat for wolves, which prefer forests, a 2013 Southern
Illinois University Carbondale study found.
The northwest, west-central Illinois and the southern tip of
the state were deemed most suitable.
And then there’s wolves’ lousy and, 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,” Kath said. “The question is, will the general public allow them to
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.