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Gray wolves once lived across Illinois and almost all of the United States, save for the Southeast, as well as portions of Mexico and Canada, but today their range is limited to just a few areas in the United States, including parts of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan and northeast Oregon, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Wolf populations were decimated in the United States when their prey — bison, deer, elk and moose — were largely eliminated by settlers as they moved west across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With prey scarce, wolves began to hunt sheep and other livestock. In turn, ranchers and government agencies offered bounty programs for the wolves, paying a head fee of $20 to $50 per wolf.
Coyotes are often mistaken for wolves, particularly in winter when coyotes look bigger because of their thicker fur coats. The two animals can appear similar at first glance, but wolves are quite a bit larger than coyotes, standing about 2½ feet tall and 5 feet to 6 feet long, compared to 1½ feet tall and about 4 feet long for coyotes, according to Wildlife Illinois. Gray wolves usually weigh between 80 pounds and 120 pounds, while coyotes weigh only 20 pounds to 50 pounds. Coyotes are typically light brown or gray in color, while wolves can also be light brown or gray but may also have a darker coat. If you get a good look at an animal’s tail, that can be a telling difference too. While coyotes walk with their tails pointed downward, wolves carry their tails straight back from their bodies while walking.
The gray wolf is listed on Illinois’ endangered species list. However, in 2020, it was removed from the United States’ endangered species list after its population was deemed to have been successfully recovered.
While wolves no longer are considered part of Illinois’ wildlife, they are occasionally spotted in the state. Since 2002, the state has confirmed several wolves in Illinois, usually after they are hit by a car or shot by a coyote hunter, Wildlife Illinois reports.
In addition to their protections as a state endangered species, wolves in the state are also protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code, which prohibits them from being harrassed, hunted or killed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. If you spot a wolf in Illinois, report it online to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.