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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't believe gray wolves are moving south
By: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The body of a gray wolf, tagged as a pup in Wisconsin, was discovered in a soybean field in east central Indiana in June 2003.
In 2001, a Missouri man fired at what he thought was a coyote, and later discovered the animal was a gray wolf that had journeyed south from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The body of a gray wolf, tagged as a pup in Wisconsin, was discovered in a soybean field in east central Indiana in June 2003. A gray wolf that apparently wandered hundreds of miles from its original home pack somewhere to the north was found dead in central Illinois in 2002. Are wolves making a comeback in these states?

Gray wolves are indeed recovering in the western Great Lakes, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ron Refsnider. But he says gray wolves are not likely to establish populations south of Wisconsin and Michigan.

"What we are probably seeing in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri are young wolves dispersing from packs in the north," Refsnider explained. "Occasionally, these wolves travel hundreds of miles but do not survive to establish packs."

Refsnider, who works in Minneapolis as one of the Service's endangered species biologists, says lack of large land areas with a low human density and an inadequate wild prey base in states beyond the gray wolves' current range will limit the species' expansion south. While an occasional single animal may be spotted outside its normal habitat - the wolf found in Indiana apparently skirted around Chicago - gray wolves require large tracts where they'll rarely encounter humans in order to establish and maintain self-sustaining packs.

"We're pleased to see wolf recovery is progressing so well in this part of the U.S., but I don't expect to see viable wolf populations in the near future in any of the states where these animals have turned up," Refsnider said.

Refsnider said the Service reclassified gray wolves in most of the United States from endangered to threatened earlier this year because populations are no longer in danger of extinction there. The next step, he said, would be to remove wolves from the federal list of endangered and threatened species and return management of their populations to states and tribes.

Under their current status as threatened, gray wolves in the western Great Lakes are protected by the Endangered Species Act. But unlike animals classified as endangered, gray wolves may now be managed with more flexibility. For example, wolves that prey on domestic livestock or other domestic animals may be trapped or killed by state, tribal, or federal agents.

But, reminds Service Resident Agent in Charge Tim Santel, wolves are still protected under the Endangered Species Act and may not be killed or harmed under most circumstances. He said the wolves found in Indiana and Illinois had been shot, although there are no plans to file charges in either case.

Santel said it is possible, as in the Missouri instance, that a shooter mistook the animals for coyotes, but cautioned that it is important to be sure of any target before firing.

"Obviously, we don't expect to see a wolf in Indiana or Illinois, but we should all be aware that the possibility exists," Santel said.

In general, gray wolves are larger than coyotes, ranging from 60 to 115 pounds and standing 26 to 32 inches at the shoulder. Coyotes typically weigh up to 50 pounds and measure up to 20 inches tall.

The chances of encountering a wild gray wolf in the back yard outside of wolf country are not good. "If you see a large canid in Indiana, Illinois, or Missouri, you're most likely looking at a coyote or a dog, or perhaps a wolf-dog hybrid," Refsnider said. He suggests checking the "Was That a Wolf?" fact sheet at before contacting state or federal wildlife officials.

Gray wolves had been absent from Indiana and neighboring states since the early 1900s, disappearing gradually -as they did virtually nationwide -due to intentional killing and loss of habitat. The only remaining wolf population in the contiguous United States for much of the 20th century was found in Minnesota. Listed as an endangered species in 1967, gray wolves began to rebound under protection of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and were aided by recovery programs launched by the Service, states, tribes, and private groups.

The total gray wolf winter population in the western Great Lakes area (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) is thought to number more than 3,000 animals, with most in Minnesota. Gray wolves also inhabit the northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Some of these wolves were reintroduced by the Service in Yellowstone National Park and in the central Idaho wilderness in the 1990s. Northwestern Montana's wolf population was established by wolves moving south from Canada. Gray wolves in the southwestern United States, where reintroduction efforts are underway, remain endangered.

More information on gray wolves, is available at the Service's website at

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