In the book “Early Maine Wildlife” – Historical Accounts of Canada lynx, Moose, Mountain Lion, White-Tailed Deer, Wolverine, Wolves, and Woodland Caribou, 1603 – 1930 – by William B. Krohn and Christopher L. Hoving, as the reader progresses through the chronological order in which the book was laid out, a few things become clear in the debate about game animals and predators during this time frame.
For instance, in recent times I have heard information being passed about by biologists within the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and others, that whitetail deer never were abundant in the northern part of the state and that moose and deer did not and could not survive together. In this claim some have said that when the deer moved north, the moose disappeared and/or when the moose were plentiful through the state, the deer were not. Accounts recorded in this book do not show that to be the case at all in my opinion when considering all written accounts. In actuality all three species of moose, deer and woodland caribou existed throughout the state together, at times very plentiful and other times not.
What does become apparent is that the proclivity of more or less game animals, i.e. caribou, moose and deer, was all dependent on the presence of wolves. What remains unsettled is when, if ever, did wolves leave the state of Maine and what was the reason for their exodus?
Most accounts in this book seem to agree that widespread and numerous packs of wolves in Maine had disappeared by the 1860s – 1870s, even though there are accounts of wolf encounters by people into the early 1900s. As is typical even to this day, hunters and trappers reported seeing wolf tracks many times and yet the continuing presence of wolves would not be acknowledged unless someone killed one and brought it out of the woods.
As an example, appearing in the Maine Sportsman, of an account in 1899, an anonymous writer says, “Thaddeus Coffron of Grand Lake Stream, claims to have seen two large gray wolves not long since on Big Lake near the mouth of Little Musquash stream. He walked up within a few yards of them, being armed only with an axe. Their tracks had been frequently seen in the vicinity previously.”
But as appears in “Forest and Stream”, we read this, “Again there are reports of wolves in Maine with their tracks followed by old wolf hunters, who ‘could not be mistaken.’ They do not bring out the trophies, however, and until they do the ordinary individual is inclined to regard their stories in the same light as that of the well-read fable.”
According to the editor of Shooting and Fishing in 1920 the last officially recorded wolf kill happened in Andover. “The report of the State Treasurer of Maine for 1895 shows that there was one wolf killed in the state during that year, for which a bounty was paid. This single specimen was killed in Andover, and is said to be the only wolf killed in Maine for many years.”
The editor further accounts that even though there may be a stray wolf killed sometime into the future, his “trustworthy sources” believe the wolf is “practically extinct” in New England.
What we don’t know for certain is why the wolf became “extinct” or “practically extinct” in Maine and New England. We have been led for decades to believe that the wolves were all shot, trapped or poisoned by man. Accounts in the book don’t seem to readily agree with this hypothesis nor does it that the caribou were killed off due to uncontrolled hunting.
As was recorded in the Maine Sportsman for the year 1900, a man who worked as a log scaler in the Penobscot region and traveled by foot as far away as 60 miles between lumber camps tells of his observations. “During the whole winter we saw no deer and but few moose, the entire absence of deer being due to the wolves with which the woods were overrun. Caribou we saw everywhere and I plainly remember that one day, coming out upon them trailing along in single file was a herd of 17 caribou.”
However, the scaler’s recall of what was once is soon become reality as he wonders where the caribou went. According to several writings in this book, deer, moose and caribou had once been reduced drastically, probably from a combination of predators and uncontrolled hunting. When the wolves disappeared, the deer and moose recovered and caribou for a time before it is believed, for whatever reasons, they just migrated out of the state. Perhaps they were simply tired of being harassed by predators, including man.
F. E. Keay writes in 1901 that wolves were the “most dreaded” of wild animals and that by their nature were found to be “ferocious and cunning” and did “incalculable” damage to livestock. In dealing with these large predators, Keay describes the effort this way: “They traveled in companies, sometimes of ten or twenty, and were caught or killed only with great difficulty.”
As I have pointed out in other parts of this review of wolves in Maine, the majority of reports all seem to agree that wolves were quite prevalent in Maine until around the year 1860, in which most also agree the wolf simply left the state with the exception of pockets of areas where some packs remained. While it is inarguable that the efforts of hunters and trappers, in conjunction with bounties being paid over 130 years and more, a sizable dent was put in Maine’s wolf population but evidence from these accounts can support the notion that this was not the cause of the final “extinction” of wolves in Maine.
While some accounts in this book of “Early Maine Wildlife” say that wolves for the most part left on their own, coinciding with a time in which many accounts tell of very little game, i.e. moose, deer and caribou, this would support the theory that large predators, like the wolf, will move into an area and essentially devoid it of prey and then move on. We seem to see that here, although several wolves and packs remained behind until the late 1800s when “trustworthy sources” declared the wolf “practically extinct”.
In having a better grasp of more recent coyote/wolf history in Maine, we discovered that it was not long after the wolf had become “practically extinct” that what was called the eastern coyote began populating the region. I recall in the 1960s seeing a stuffed eastern coyote that had been killed in Maine. This version of coyote was approximately 30 pounds in weight. This is a far cry from the more abundant sizes of coyotes now present in Maine, commonly reaching 50 -70 pounds in size.
It has been determined that what roams today’s forests in Maine and are commonly referred to as coyotes, are actually some concocted conglomeration of mixed breeds of wolf, coyotes, and domestic dog. It became common knowledge after the influx of eastern coyote into Maine that this varmint, perhaps because of a very small migrating population, interbred with “wild” dogs or domesticated dogs left to run unrestrained. No one is sure of how the wolf mix got into these animals.
It has been theorized that what was once called the gray wolf in Eastern Quebec, Canada, began migrating or random scatterings of these wolves, entered northern Maine and as such resulted in the inbreeding of the already inbred coyote/dog.
Considering the evidence provided in “Early Maine Wildlife” one has to honestly consider that given the relatively short period of time from when “trustworthy sources” declared the wolf in Maine “practically extinct”, that some of those earlier wolves remained behind and began breeding with the migrating coyotes.
It would be intellectually dishonest not to consider all the facts in educating ourselves to the changes of wildlife, including predators and large game animals and use them to better be able to effectively manage these species. It is reasonable to consider that man’s efforts to eradicate, – and make no bones about it, that was their intent – was not wholly what drove wolves out of Maine. If this is the case, then it would be beneficial to gain facts and knowledge to understand what events total caused this to happen.