Wolves among us?
By Doug Goodman
Rockford Register Star
Bruce Ellison and Leo Ruefer believe they saw unexpected visitors from Wisconsin in Winnebago County the past four months: wolves.
When I first saw them out of the house window I thought, There go two coyotes. But they looked too big for coyotes, Ellison said.
He noticed the animals jogging along a fence line about 400 yards away on his Caledonia farm last month.
Ruefer saw a single animal in December near his home just west of Rockton.
At first I thought it was a giant coyote, but it didn t have any of the markings of a coyote. It was all gray, he said.
I ve seen wolves at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (in Wisconsin). I really think this was a wolf. It was too big for a coyote and didn t have the right color.
He said his neighbor saw the animal again two weeks ago.
Wisconsin and Illinois wildlife officials have doubts about the wolf claims, but admit it s possible. In the past couple of years, two wolves, identified as being from Wisconsin, were killed in Illinois. A third shot in Indiana near the Ohio border had to travel through Illinois.
I m a little skeptical even though we ve had records of wolves traveling through those areas, said Adrian Wydeven, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wolf ecologist.
I m sure occasionally there are wolves down there, but I think people do report coyotes for wolves, especially in midwinter when the coyotes have thick, furry coats.
Wisconsin s gray wolf population is estimated at 500 and climbing every year, Wydeven said. Wisconsin s DNR didn t reintroduce wolves to the state, instead the wolves migrated from Minnesota.
The closest pack is in the Necedah refuge about 100 miles from the Illinois border.
In recent years a Wisconsin wolf was hit and killed by a car in Illinois Lake County, and another was shot in Marshall County near Peoria. Illinois doesn t have a resident wolf population.
I think we will continue to occasionally see an individual wolf because they are becoming more numerous to our north. said Glen Kruse, chief of the Illinois DNR s division of natural heritage.
The wolves that wander into Illinois are typically younger or weaker males driven out of a pack by the dominant male, Kruse said.
Wolf-dog hybrids run free
Sometimes people believe they ve spotted a wolf, but are instead seeing a wolf-dog mix breed, Kruse said.
As far as I know, hybridation of wolves and dogs in the wild is unheard of, but in captivity there can be a situation where they interbreed, he said.
Wolf-dog hybrids occasionally escape or are turned loose by owners who don t want them anymore, Kruse said.
Certain characteristics distinguish wolves from coyotes and dogs.
They have very large feet, Wydeven said. Narrow-chested. Long-legged. People are surprised by just how long their legs are, how tall they are. Often times when people see them, they are not thinking dog, they are thinking deer because of how tall they are. They are only a little shorter than white-tailed deer.
Wolves ears are erect, while their tails hang flat or are straight back.
They wouldn t have any curl or curve, and it wouldn t be held over its back like some dog breeds, Wydeven said.
Wolves aren t considered a threat to humans but certainly are capable of taking livestock or might take a pet if they have an opportunity, Kruse said.
Tracking collars on wolves
Forty of Wisconsin s wolves wear satellite tracking collars.
The wolf killed in Indiana had a collar, but Wydeven said the animal wasn t tracked after it left Jackson County in west-central Wisconsin.
The collars are needed for tracking because wolves are stealthy when traveling.
There are stories from Wisconsin of wolves they have tracked with satellite collars going through residential neighborhoods at night and no one ever noticed they were there, Kruse said.
If you see one
Kruse and Wydeven said a camera is the best tool to help wildlife officials identify a suspected wolf.
What we look for on any of these sightings of unexpected animals are good photographs or at least a track that can be positively identified, Kruse said.
Wydeven said a ruler should be placed next to the track in the snow or mud for the photo.
And not just a single track, but a series of tracks. A lot of times from the tracks we can come up with a pretty good estimation whether or not they are wolves, he said.
Ruefer said he and his neighbor have their cameras ready if the unexpected visitor returns.
About gray wolves
Length: 5- to 51/2-feet long, including 15- to 19-inch tail.
Height: 2 1/2 feet
Weight: Males average 75 pounds; females 60 pounds.
Color: Silvery gray-brown backs, light tan and cream underparts, and bushy tails. In winter, their fur becomes darker on the neck, shoulders, and rump. Colors can vary.
Diet: Deer, beavers, rabbits, mice, muskrats and other small mammals.
Habitat: Large, remote contiguous blocks of mixed forest with low road densities.
Where found: Wolves exist in the wild in Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, and possibly in Oregon, Utah and South Dakota.
Tips to ID a wolf
Size is the key to differentiating a wolf from a coyote. A coyote is half as big as a wolf.
Wolves differ from most dogs by narrower chest, longer legs, larger feet, tail held straight down or out, and large head with cheek hair tufts.
When walking, a wolf places its hind foot in the track left by the front foot, whereas a dog?s front and hind foot tracks do not overlap.
Dogs tend to zigzag as they walk while wolves and coyotes usually walk in a straight line. A wolf print is 4-5 inches long and the length of a stride is 34-40 inches. A coyote?s stride is 26-30 inches.
Source: Wisconsin DNR
Where to call
Area residents who believe they have spotted a wolf should report the sighting by calling 217-785-8774.
On the Web
For more information about wolves, check the Web sitednr.wi.gov/org/land/er/mammals/wolf/