Wolves are out there, say some Hoosiers

Recent discovery of animal prompts many claims of sightings around the state in past years.

By George McLaren, Indy Star, george.mclaren@indystar.com

September 17, 2003

After the shooting death of a wild wolf in eastern Indiana, several Hoosiers are reporting they have seen wolves or wolflike predators throughout the state.

Federal officials said Tuesday that a necropsy on the ear-tagged wolf from Wisconsin showed that it died from a gunshot wound, but investigators have no leads.

A story about the case in The Indianapolis Star prompted a number of people to call in with their own wolf tales.

Chester Vogel, a Ripley County farmer, said he has seen at least four wolves around his property in the past few years, including one that a coyote trapper caught in a leg snare and shot.

A pelt dealer later told them that the animal was a wolf, not a coyote.

"It was much larger than a coyote," Vogel said.

He has seen and killed many coyotes and coyote-dog mixes, he said, which prey on his calves.

But these other predators were "much heavier, bigger" than a coyote or a coy-dog, he said.

Shirley Peraino, of Carmel, said she and her husband were stunned when they spotted what they thought was a wolf near their Brown County cabin in mid-June.

"I just know it was a gray wolf. It was looking really shaggy, really thin," said Peraino, who has a cabin on Sweetwater Lake west of Edinburgh.

Peraino and her husband, James, were driving on a rural road when they spotted the predator about 30 feet off to the side, she said.

"We've had coyotes in our back yard, and it was not a coyote, that I know," she said.

"It was just something you see once in a lifetime," she said. "I couldn't believe we were seeing that."

Jim Rafdal, a Noblesville resident, said he spotted a wolf about a dozen years ago while hunting for deer at Lieber State Recreation Area in Central Indiana.

"It was full grown; it was a big dude," Rafdal said. "It looked like it had (a) scent, like it was tracking something. It was coming down this ridge. Then it got my scent, and its head popped up. It looked right at me, but it didn't want anything to do with me."

The animal, which Rafdal said was too big to be a coyote, then vanished.

Wildlife officials said they also have received reports of wolves around Indiana in past years. But other than the recent wolf death, none has been confirmed.

Lori Pruitt, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, said she suspects many of the reports include other animals, such as coyotes, wild dogs or possibly wolf-dog hybrids.

"I've seen some big coyotes," Pruitt said. "I've seen some that caused me to do a double take -- 'Wow, that thing is huge.'

"In all likelihood, if there were any number of wolves in the state, we'd know it. One would get hit by a car or -- as this one did -- one would get shot."

But she acknowledged that some people may have seen wolves -- like the one that traveled from central Wisconsin.

"That wolf traveled all the way across the state of Indiana," she said. "It's hard for me to imagine it got that far without somebody seeing it."

Wolves have definitely been spreading around the Midwest. A few decades ago, there was only one population in the lower 48 states, in northeastern Minnesota.

Now, there are also established populations in upper Michigan as well as Wisconsin.

The wolf shot to death in Indiana was the third to make it to the lower Midwest in the past two years, following similar incidents in Illinois and Missouri.

There also have been confirmed wolf sightings in lower Michigan, as well as both Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.

A reintroduction out West in the mid-1990s has resulted in new populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Gray wolves were downlisted from the Endangered Species List earlier this year but are still protected under "threatened" status.

Call Star reporter George McLaren at 1-317-444-6232.