Never Cry Wolf

By Mark McCollough

It was the wee hours of the morning at the dead-end of a rutted logging road deep in the vast Ragmuff clearcut in northern Maine. A carpet of stars blanketed the moonless night. We stepped out of the truck, set up the speakers, and played a recorded sequence of wolf calls that sailed across the northern night. We had done this dozens of times over hundreds of square miles in northern Maine. The only responses we got were the excited yips and howls of coyotes.

This time was different. A lonely, bass, monotone howl permeated the black night, raising the hair on the back of our necks. After weeks of surveys, we heard hundreds of coyotes respond to our recorded calls. But there was no mistaking that this was likely a wolf, identical to the mournful howls I’ve heard in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Denali, Alaska, and the tundra of northern Quebec. We returned to the same area several times before the snow blanketed the Northwoods, with no luck at eliciting another response.


Snow Melt

As soon as the snow melted the following spring, I returned to the Ragmuff country. The logging roads were still soft from snowmelt when I found the large canid tracks on a remote road that had not been traveled since the previous autumn. There was a set of 25 or 30 tracks, 4 ¾-inches long and spaced about 29 inches apart – well beyond the size expected for an eastern coyote.

That was it. No more howls. No more tracks.

Are there wolves in Maine? Two wolves were killed in Maine in the 1990s, but they likely spent some time in captivity. An 86-pound wild wolf was killed in northern New Brunswick in 2013.

Wolves in Maine?

In the fall of 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to definitively answer this question before proposing to remove the wolf from the federal endangered species list in the Northeast. I was tasked to work with National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to answer that seemingly simple question. It is still unsettled.

Since my early days as a federal biologist, the wolves in the Northeast were on and off the federal endangered list, punctuated by lawsuits and conflicting biological data. The “wolf question” is elusive, complex, hinges on our understanding of what canid lived here historically, and the latest genetic understanding of canids in eastern North America.

Wolves once were numerous in Maine, but what species of wolf were they? Early Maine naturalists sometimes referred to two different types of wolves – a smaller “deer wolf” along the coast and a larger variety that preyed on moose and caribou in the north. This comports with our recent understanding of wolf species in eastern Canada – a smaller eastern wolf species (Canis lycaon) found from Algonquin Park to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and a large gray wolf species (Canis lupus) in the northern moose-caribou ecosystems of Quebec and Labrador. In between is a zone of gray X eastern wolf hybrids. A similar zone of hybridization could have occurred in Maine when Europeans first arrived. A wolf specimen in the Harvard Museum killed in 1863 at Moosehead Lake, Maine was genetically determined to be an eastern wolf.

Closest Population

The closest wolf population to Maine is in the Laurentide Reserve, a scant 80 miles from St. Pamphile on the northwest border of Maine. These animals are a gray X eastern wolf hybrid. Although challenging, wolves (and other mammals) can traverse south across the ice-covered St. Lawrence River. Crossing the Gaspe region of Quebec may be even more daunting. The province does not tolerate wolves south of the St. Lawrence where coyote snaring and trapping is widespread.

Enter the eastern coyote (Canis latrans). Wolves were extirpated from New England and the most remote areas of Maine by the 1890s. It didn’t take long for nature to fill the void. Western coyotes dramatically expanded their range eastward and arrived here in the 1930s and 1940s. They hybridized with the smaller eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) as they migrated across southern Ontario. A Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Trent University study of coyote carcasses in 2003 showed that most Maine coyotes exhibited some wolf ancestry, which explains their larger size than their western cousins.

A 25-year debate has filled scientific journals on whether the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) is a unique species or a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) or is a hybrid between gray wolves and coyotes (Canis lupus X latrans). The Canadian government has accepted the taxonomy that the eastern wolf is a unique species, but admits they will readily hybridize with gray wolves and with coyotes. The latest 2023 study by Trent University describes eastern wolves as a distinct species that evolved separately from grey wolves for the past 67,000 years. They hybridized with coyotes 37,000 years ago and again in the last century.

Maine Wolf Coalition

In 2023, the Maine Wolf Coalition posted trail camera photos of a wolf-like canid in northern Maine. Does this mean that wolves are returning to Maine? Not necessarily.

If an eastern wolf from Ontario or Quebec finds its way to northern New York, Maine, or New Brunswick it will find itself in a sea of eastern coyotes. Any dispersing eastern wolf would readily hybridize with eastern coyotes, and the offspring would be assimilated into a eastern coyote population that already has a genetic legacy of wolf genes. Similarly, eastern coyotes from southern Canada freely disperse into New England and New Brunswick (and vice versa), further mixing the Canis soupis mix of wolf and coyote genes in our region. Hybridization between reintroduced red wolves (Canis rufus) and eastern coyotes In North Carolina has made reintroduction of these wolves (that scientists believe are related to the eastern Canadian wolf) almost impossible.

Some argue that the large gray wolf once occurred in Maine when we had abundant moose and caribou. Why not bring them back to Maine? After all, big gray wolves eat small western coyotes (as they do in Yellowstone). Where definitively-identified large gray wolves and small “western” coyotes are found together in the West there is no documented hybridization between the two. Or perhaps gray wolves would instead make love to larger eastern coyotes? Eastern coyotes are not sympatric with large gray wolves in northern Quebec, so hybridization between large gray wolves and large eastern coyotes has not been documented (yet).

My conclusion…yes, individual eastern wolves occasionally disperse into northern New England and New Brunswick. Once here, they are assimilated into a large population of eastern coyotes that already has a genetic legacy of breeding with wolves. Even if a pack of eastern wolves stayed intact and came from Quebec to Maine, it is unlikely they would retain their unique behavior and genetics for long.

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