CHICAGO • 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 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, perhaps 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.
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, explained Kath, of their own accord, the wolves have moved south. There’s even one pack near Beloit, Wis., only miles from Illinois.
Several wolves have been shot in Jo Daviess 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 prosecutors.
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 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 calls to a residential phone number for Sirchia. His attorney, Robert J. Krupp of Bartlett, 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 muzzles.
But could wolves become commonplace in Illinois years or decades from now? It is possible, said Kath.
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 is 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,” said Kath. “The question is, will the general public allow them to survive?”