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 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.