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Mark Kuykendall/MEDILL

A wolf specimen on display at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.


Few wolves in Illinois but 'coywolves' on the rise

by Mark Kuykendall
Jan 29, 2014


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Illinois Department of Natural Resources

A coyote in Illinois. Coyotes are common throughout Illinois, and are legal to hunt year round.

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Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A wolf pup in Wisconsin. Despite wolves establishing packs in other Great Lakes states, experts agree that wolves are unlikely to maintain sustained populations in Illinois due to urbanization.

Wolves

Mark Kuykendall/MEDILL

A wolf specimen on display at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

Chicago residents won’t be spotting wolves roaming the streets anytime soon, but experts agree that wolf-coyote hybrids may be heading toward your backyard. Watch out for "coywolves."

Despite a number of confirmed lone wolf sightings and shootings in Illinois over the past decade, state wildlife officials and wolf researchers assert that wolves aren’t likely to settle in Illinois for the foreseeable future.

“Urban centers are just too established,” said Deputy Field Office Supervisor Kraig McPeek of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We occasionally see lone young male wolves, very few, out wandering in search of territory. Eventually, they usually go back to the north on their own.”

McPeek stressed that these sightings remain extremely rare. With this lack of prevalence, no formal wolf management plan currently is in effect. But it is still illegal to shoot wolves in the state unless they are threatening humans or livestock.

The once thriving Illinois wolf population was all but eliminated by 1860 through habitat destruction and hunting, but after a nearly 150 year absence, a wolf was spotted in 2002 in Marshall County. Despite subsequent sightings, their past decline explains why they are unlikely to return, regardless of the protection laws in place.

University of Minnesota professor L. David Mech, a leading wolf expert and researcher, doesn’t believe that wolves have a chance to establish a breeding population in Illinois.

“Before they do, they will be hit by vehicles, mistaken for coyotes and shot, shot illegally, or killed for taking dogs or livestock,” said Mech.

Recent events support Mech’s argument.

According to wildlife officials, in recent years at least two wolves have been shot by Illinois hunters who mistook them for coyotes, which are legal to hunt year round. Another animal that was shot was confirmed as a wolf-coyote hybrid.

Coyotes are growing bolder this winter as hunger drives them toward backyards, and observations of wolf-coyote hybrids suggest they may be even bolder still.

“With such a lack of habitat and so many people, it would be very difficult for wolf packs,” said Bill Ripple, a renowned wolf researcher at Oregon State University. “But the wolf-coyote hybrid seems more likely in the near term.”

The animal, sometimes called a “coywolf”, is gaining ground in habitats where wolves have been eradicated. The coywolf is a result of the interbreeding of the eastern wolf and the western coyote, a phenomenon first documented in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park in 1919.

The relatively new hybrid species has proven remarkably capable of thriving in urban areas. Coywolves have been spotted in cities throughout Canada and even New York City, but none have been confirmed yet in Chicago.

The coywolves are smaller than wolves and have obvious traits of both species.

Many Chicago residents might be unsettled with the idea of such wild creatures living among them, but may be unaware that they are already with us. The greater Chicago area is home to anywhere between several hundred and several thousand coyotes, according to research by Ohio State University coyote expert Stan Gehrt.

“We couldn't find an area in Chicago where there weren't coyotes,” said Gehrt in a 2005 study.

No coywolves have been confirmed in the region yet, but Gehrt’s research has shown that Chicago’s coyotes are growing larger and living longer. One of his research subjects has now survived in a Chicago residential area for over 13 years.

Recent coyote attacks on dogs in Glenview and Wheaton have raised concerns about the danger these animals pose to both pets and humans.

Experts suggest that the ecological benefits of the presence of these predators should be weighed against the risks. Ripple noted that the positive “cascading effects” of a population of large predators could include controlling overpopulation of many animal species. Coyotes and coywolves reduce populations of rats, geese and other small animals, and coywolves prey on excess deer.

“Fewer deer means fewer car accidents. Less crop damage. It might even have some effect on reducing the transmission of disease,” said Ripple.

As with any interaction between humans and nature, it will be up to people to decide the outcome.

“Human tolerance determines the success or failure of populations,” said Ripple.

In the case of an encounter with a coyote, area residents are warned against approaching or feeding them. Coyote attacks on humans and pets often occur when they have become too familiarized with people.