By MICHAEL TARM | Associated Press
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," said Kath. That preparation, he said, has already 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.
Wolves weren't threatened by extinction in Alaska, which by far has the most, 7,000 to 11,000 wolves, of any U.S. state. Minnesota is second, with 2,200 wolves.
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 noted that the wolves have on their own moved south, and one pack is near Beloit, Wis., only miles from Illinois. Also, lone wolves can leave their packs and roam more than 500 miles away in search of potential mates.
Several shootings of wolves have occurred in JoDaviess County, which hugs the Wisconsin border in the northwestern Illinois.
That was where Earl Sirchia, of Elgin, killed the wolf that drew the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. He was accused of taking the wolf's skull, and prosecutors said investigators had a photo he'd taken of himself with the dead wolf.
Sirchia faced a maximum one-year prison sentence but instead pleaded guilty. No one answered calls from The Associated Press to a phone number listed for Sirchia. His Bartlett-based attorney, Robert J. Krupp, hung up when the case was mentioned.
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 reports.
After Bourrette shot and killed it, Vesely cursed and said, "Ya know, this could be a wolf," he later told an investigator. 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." Differences between wolves and coyotes can be difficult to spot, especially at a distance. But wolves are typically twice as large as coyotes, weighing as much as 115 pounds, and have larger muzzles and shorter, more rounded ears.
Bourrette and Vesely were charged under state conservation law, but the charges were later dismissed.
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-northern Illinois. But killing wolves anywhere in Illinois is still prohibited.
Enough wolves are now roaming into Illinois that hunters need to remain cautious, and Kath said it was possible that wolves could eventually, years from now, become commonplace in the state.
There are plenty of white-tail deer, Midwestern wolves' favorite food, in Illinois. But only 14 percent of Illinois land is suitable habitat for wolves, which prefer forests, according to a 2013 study by Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The northwest, west-central Illinois and the southern tip of the state were deemed most suitable.
And then there is the wolf's 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," said Kath. "The question is, will the general public allow them to survive?"
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm