Ex­perts: Wolflike crea­tures in western Illi­nois are coy­otes

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - LINE OF DUTY - By Ted Gre­gory tgre­[email protected]­bune.com Twit­ter @tgre­go­ryre­ports

The mys­tery was fun while it lasted, but those cu­ri­ous wolflike crea­tures spot­ted on a western Illi­nois man’s trail cam­eras ap­pear to be about as com­mon as a crit­ter that wan­ders sub­ur­ban back­yards.

“We’re ba­si­cally talk­ing about coy­otes here,” said Doug Duf­ford, an Illi­nois De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources in­va­sive wildlife man­ager. He co­or­di­nated DNA test­ing that was done by re­searchers with the Field Mu­seum in Chicago, as­sisted by the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

“We still have to talk about it a lit­tle bit in-house,” Duf­ford said of pre­lim­i­nary re­sults he re­ceived in re­cent days. “But I’m not see­ing very much to be­lieve that these things are any­thing other than coy­otes.”

The Field Mu­seum’s lead re­searcher on the pro­ject, Tom Gnoske, con­firmed in an email that all the re­sults in­di­cate the an­i­mals are coy­otes. For the most part, those con­clu­sions have put to rest the pos­si­bil­ity that a wolf pack is roam­ing a re­gion of west cen­tral Illi­nois known as For­got­to­nia, which hasn’t had a con­firmed wolf sight­ing in decades.

De­spite the re­sults, the man who sparked in­ter­est in the cu­ri­ous canids — a fam­ily of car­niv­o­rous mam­mals that in­clude wolves, coy­otes, foxes and do­mes­tic dogs — re­mains con­vinced they are wolves.

“This is a text­book case of de­nial,” said Jay Smith, a farmer, mu­si­cian and am­a­teur nat­u­ral­ist from In­dus­try, a tiny town about 235 miles south­west of Chicago.

Smith, who started see­ing the large canids about seven years ago on farm­land his wife’s fam­ily owns and has spot­ted them on trail cam­eras he’s set up, sub­mit­ted sev­eral car­casses of the an­i­mals to the Field Mu­seum early this year. To bol­ster his con­tention in the face of the DNA re­sults, Smith said the larger skulls and bone struc­tures of the feet and toes of his an­i­mals are strong in­di­ca­tors that they are wolves or a hy­brid. He also said the DNA test­ing is in­com­plete.

Duf­ford and other ex­perts say the an­i­mals are still far smaller than a red wolf, which is smaller than other wolf species. Among those ex­perts is David Mech, a se­nior sci­en­tist in bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey who has stud­ied wolves since 1958. Duf­ford did ac­knowl­edge that “some in­di­ca­tion of an­cient wolf ” was found in the an­i­mals’ DNA and that they have “a lim­ited amount of hy­bridiza­tion with dog.”

Smith cited the an­cient wolf DNA as more proof that the an­i­mals are wolves — per­haps the vir­tu­ally ex­tinct red wolf — and that they need le­gal pro­tec­tion from hunt­ing.

Duf­ford said vir­tu­ally all coy­otes have small amounts of wolf DNA and that dogs and wolves share about 99 per­cent of the same DNA. “The wolf el­e­ment in the DNA sug­gests that at some point, a long time ago, a wolf bred with a coy­ote,” he said, which might have oc­curred as far back as 100,000 years. “But this has been doc­u­mented in other coy­otes by other re­searchers.

“If Jay’s an­i­mals are red wolves,” Duf­ford added, “then ev­ery coy­ote in Illi­nois is a red wolf.”

Wolves, which once roamed the U.S., gained a rep­u­ta­tion as live­stock thieves as Euro­pean set­tle­ment spread. By the mid-1900s, they were nearly ex­tinct with help from govern­ment ex­ter­mi­na­tion ef­forts. Pro­grams have re­stored gray wolf pop­u­la­tions in western and north­ern U.S. since then, but they are seen in Illi­nois. Red wolves re­main vir­tu­ally ex­tinct in the wild, al­though a pro­gram in North Carolina has helped es­tab­lish and main­tain a pop­u­la­tion of about 50 in the U.S.

Smith be­lieves the wolves never fully va­cated For­got­to­nia, gen­er­ally west of Springfield, east of the Mis­sis­sippi River, north of St. Louis and south of Gales­burg. He con­tends the area is so re­mote that wildlife bi­ol­o­gists have over­looked it.

Duf­ford said he ex­pected Smith to re­main un­de­terred by the re­sults. He’s right. Smith said he plans to con­tinue his push to pro­tect the canids roam­ing For­got­to­nia and else­where un­til their ge­netic com­po­si­tion is sub­jected to more test­ing. He plans to reach out to the new gover­nor, J.B. Pritzker, about the is­sue next year.

“It’s just now get­ting re­ally fun,” Smith said.

ZBIG­NIEW BZ­DAK/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Jay Smith, shown in Batavia with what he said is a mounted red wolf, has doubts about ex­perts’ DNA find­ings.

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