The Unwavering Wolf Truther Who Would Be Maine’s Next Governor

John Glowa has spent decades arguing that wolves have a clandestine presence in Maine — never mind what state agencies say. Now, the perennial bee in wildlife officials’ bonnets is parlaying his canid crusade into a long-shot bid for governor. Can a voice in the wilderness become the leader of the pack?

By Peter Andrey Smith
Photographed by Tristan Spinski
From our March 2022 issue

John Glowa Sr., would-be governor of Maine, meets me in a slush-covered Hannaford parking lot at 7 a.m. Until recently, he says, he worked at the store’s fish counter. Today, he’s driving to Moosehead Lake to meet a collaborator whose name I’ve been asked not to reveal, one who worries about the repercussions of being associated with Glowa. The day is overcast and, for mid-December, balmy. Temperatures hover around 33 degrees, and a layer of wet snow blankets the ground. Glowa is, quite adamantly, not a hunter, but today he’s dressed like one: red plaid jacket, blue jeans, and thick, felt-lined boots.

He grabs a plastic tote from the trunk of his car, what he calls his “little bag of tricks.” Inside are a few plastic vials, a canning jar full of 200-proof alcohol, and a spiral-bound logbook — everything he needs to bag and document animal scat. The scat he’s after usually resembles dog poop, although it is far more pungent. Glowa is determined to find animal droppings that he believes will contain DNA proving that wolves, long ago extirpated from Maine, are returning to the state — a point he has argued for nearly 30 years.

On the shore of Moosehead Lake, we rendezvous with Glowa’s anonymous source and hop into his truck, Glowa riding shotgun. We pass through the village of Kokadjo, with its iconic billboard (“This Is God’s Country. Why Set It On Fire and Make It Look Like Hell”), then head down a snow-covered two-track. Glowa quickly spots fresh tracks, and the driver stops the truck. The tracks seem to have a hopping pattern — likely, Glowa says, made by a snowshoe hare. We keep driving, and before long, we reach the GPS coordinates we’ve been aiming for, a spot where the driver collected some promising scat last fall. From its scent and color, Glowa suspects it was deposited by a large canid possessing wolf DNA, and he’s planning to send the scat — in a tube of alcohol, bagged in plastic — to the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory at Ontario’s Trent University.

Today, though, the collection site looks just like the rest of the wooded roadway: a long, straight stretch of white. No scat. No tracks. No wolves.

Glowa makes scat-finding trips like this often, and while he rarely comes back empty handed, he doesn’t always turn up specimens fresh enough to test. The pages of his spiral-bound scat log are filled with records noting the GPS coordinates where scat was collected, the date and time of discovery, and a short description of each (“strong odor, stiff, but not desiccated”). As we drive back the way we came, he explains that no one else in Maine is ground-truthing by way of scat — particularly not, to his ire, the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “And I’ll use the tired cliché,” he says. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get in your truck and drive down the woods roads.”

Glowa’s tipster stops to point out two moose in a clear-cut. Then, farther along, just past a planting of spruce (future 2x4s, Glowa notes), Glowa sees something and shouts, “Can you stop? Oh!” The source hits the brakes, and we skid to a halt. “It’d be right under the middle of the truck,” Glowa says, as we slowly back up. He pops open the passenger door to check out the scat, then pops his head back in, grinning. Scratch that. “It’s just a rock.”

Glowa, however, is undeterred. “We know they’re here,” he’d told me that morning. “We’ve been gathering physical evidence.” Out on the scat trail, he forms his hands as if cradling a mid-size dog poop. “When you see scat that’s this long and this big around, that’s real,” he says. “It’s not like we’re hunting Bigfoot.”

A few minutes into the 1969 documentary Wolves and the Wolf Men, the narrator observes that “for thousands of years, man’s imagination has endowed the wolf with awesome supernatural powers and rapacious appetites.” Once North America’s most widely distributed carnivores, wolves were literally demonized by European colonizers, who feared them as threats to their livestock and livelihoods but also as manifestations of dark spiritual forces. (As one scholar writes, “Wolves were considered capable of murdering a person’s soul.”) Government policy sanctioned the killing. Wolves were effectively shot, trapped, and poisoned out of Maine by the turn of the 20th century. Where wolves are found in the Lower 48 today — the northern Rockies, say, where they’ve been reintroduced, or around Lake Superior, where remnant packs have persisted — they still inspire enmity. A bumper sticker popular in pockets of the rural West depicts a pair in crosshairs alongside the phrase “Smoke a Pack a Day.” As the narrator of Wolves and the Wolf Men explained, “Modern man sees the wolf as a killer of his livestock and competitor for the wild game man likes to kill for sport.”

Glowa watched the documentary as a teenager and was moved, particularly by its graphic scenes of people shooting wolves out of a helicopter in Alaska. At the time, he lived in Connecticut, where his family had moved from Aroostook County shortly after he was born. Growing up, Glowa loved finding newts and turtles around his suburban home. At 15, he was named to a local conservation commission, making him, as one newspaper reported, “the youngest municipal official in the state and, perhaps, the nation.”

In August of 1993, Glowa was 39 and back in Maine, raising a family in South China, outside Augusta, and working for the state Department of Environmental Protection. That month, a Pennsylvania man hunting in northwestern Maine shot and killed a wolf about 25 miles from the border with Quebec. Since gray wolves were then protected under the Endangered Species Act, federal prosecutors charged the hunter and his guide with a crime. Glowa remembers calling the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to ask what the agency’s wardens, biologists, and other state officials were going to do to prevent any future wolf killings. DIFW’s answer, as Glowa recalls it, was nothing. “It’s not our job to educate the public,” Glowa remembers an agency rep telling him. “It’s the public’s job to educate themselves.”

The next year, Glowa and “a couple of other folks who were really into wolves” founded the nonprofit Maine Wolf Coalition, committed to supporting “wolf recovery in Maine through research, education, and protection.” Glowa had always sensed wolves would return on their own if allowed, and when another large canid was identified as a wolf after being shot and killed near Ellsworth in 1996, it seemed like evidence of recolonization. MWC set up a wolf-spotters’ hotline and booths full of literature at events like the Common Ground Country Fair. In 1997, members brought a captive gray wolf “ambassador” to the State House in an effort to destigmatize wolves and reduce the odds, particularly for hunters, of mistaken ID with coyotes. The group peaked at around 200 members but abandoned a membership model years ago. These days, Glowa says, MWC is mostly him, working on a computer in his basement, along with a four-person board, some volunteer scat collectors, and 2,700 or so Facebook followers.

A shot from the set of trail cam images that the Maine Wolf Coalition trumpeted late last summer. “Based on the DNA and physical evidence,” Glowa wrote, “we believe that at least one of these animals is a wolf.” Others are less convinced. Photo courtesy of John Glowa.

Since cofounding MWC, Glowa has become one of the most vocal critics and reliable pesterers of DIFW, an agency he thinks is too beholden to the minority of Maine residents who hunt, trap, and fish — and too dismissive of non-consumptive users of Maine resources. He’s a recurring presence at public forums and committee meetings and a prolific writer of letters to the editor and op-eds (some of which he’s framed and hung on his kitchen walls). He’s argued for more representation of non-hunters on agency committees and against bear baiting, recreational trapping, lead ammunition, and more. He’s filed petitions with the agency that have forced public hearings on several of these issues. As of this writing, he’s awaiting an appeal decision on a petition he filed in superior court last year to prevent DIFW from issuing additional moose-hunting permits as part of a culling effort. (Glowa is such an agency bugbear that his Moosehead scat source preferred his name withheld because his day job requires cooperation with DIFW officials.)

In 2019, Glowa submitted a formal public-records request for any and all DIFW materials relating to wolves — every report, internal memo, email, recording of meeting minutes, and more that makes mention of the species. The agency calculated it would take 6,040 hours of labor and quoted him a $90,000 fee, along with a scaled-back alternative at a cost of $2,400. Glowa pursued neither, but he thinks such documents would show that the state is willfully ignoring evidence of wolves in order to avoid the headaches and controversies that would accompany having to establish a wolf-management policy. “What I feel is motivating DIFW,” he says, “is political pressure being exerted on them by organizations and individuals who feel that if a wolf population was documented in Maine, they might have to change their way of doing things, and that includes hunters, trappers, and the forest-products industry.”

That’s why, in Glowa’s estimation, the agency ignores potentially credible evidence of wolves. He offers the example of a Gorham man who claimed in 2013 that his trail camera had captured a long-legged, fur-covered animal with a wolf-like nose. A DIFW biologist told the Bangor Daily News that surrounding vegetation in the photo sure looked like the Pacific Northwest, suggesting the image simply wasn’t from Maine — a cursory dismissal, Glowa contends, that’s typical of DIFW’s response. “It just goes to further bolster my personal opinion of the agency,” he says, “and my understanding, my belief, that they don’t want wolves here.”

“I would say we’re neutral,” says Nate Webb, a biologist and director of DIFW’s wildlife division. The agency fundamentally disputes Glowa’s characterizations, and Webb says it regularly receives reports that can be debunked without an on-the-ground investigation. “Our role is to conserve all of Maine’s wildlife,” he says, “and if wolves ever were to become reestablished in Maine, we would conserve and manage them under Maine state law.”

As it is, state law prohibits killing any wildlife that doesn’t have a designated hunting or trapping season. Though, of course, licensed hunters can kill coyotes in Maine year-round and with few restrictions. The risk, as Glowa sees it, is that wolves are taken accidentally — or “accidentally.” DIFW’s official stance is that, while the odd wolf or wolf-like canid has been documented in recent decades — including in ’93 and ’96 — these are rare outliers, and some were likely released from captivity. (State law prohibits releasing a wolf for the purpose of reintroduction.) The agency has seen no evidence, Webb says, that wolves have a breeding population in Maine — and he says there’s certainly no institutional bias against that scenario.

“We all love wildlife and the outdoors,” Webb says, “so whenever we get a report of a potential large canid, to be honest, there’s some excitement. ‘Jeez, that could be a wolf!’”

Debates over wolves in New England are complicated by a lack of scientific and popular consensus about what makes a wolf a wolf. For starters, biologists and geneticists generally agree that North America has only one wolf species, Canis lupus, or gray wolves, and that relatively recent interbreeding with coyotes explains various subspecies, including Canis lycaon, the smaller eastern wolves found today in southern Ontario and Quebec. But another school believes that gray wolves and eastern wolves are distinct species with a distant common ancestor. Everyone agrees that wolves and coyotes (and domestic dogs) have interbred, particularly in the last 150 years, as wolves’ range diminished and coyotes’ expanded eastward. The first coyotes likely arrived in Maine in the 1930s. Today, DIFW puts their number around 15,000.

In 2014, DIFW oversaw a genetic survey of 100 Maine canids identified as coyotes (pdf). Every single one showed some percentage of eastern wolf ancestry, although most were in the single digits, with just eight animals exhibiting wolf ancestries of 10 percent or greater. The results come as no surprise to anyone familiar with coyotes on both sides of the country — Maine’s tend to be noticeably heavier and larger jawed than their western cousins. Glowa has been sending scat for laboratory DNA testing since 2019, and his results similarly illustrate hybridization. Some have embraced the term “coywolf” for the genetically motley hybrids, even suggesting eastern coyotes warrant their own species designation. Others jokingly refer to Maine’s wild canids as Canis soupis.

Glowa received his most notable scat-test result in the fall of 2020, when the lab identified a sample as belonging to a canid that showed 85 percent wolf ancestry. The result got a bit of Maine press. Then, late last year, Glowa posted a video slideshow of trail-cam stills, some of which he says were captured near the site where the canid scat was collected. In a press release, he announced that the images “show at least two wolf-like adults,” and an MWC Facebook post declared them “photographic documentation of probable wolves.” Nonetheless, Glowa says, the only news outlet to report the discovery was The Town Line, a free weekly published in South China, where he lives. The video racked up a few dozen Facebook shares and some 700 YouTube views.

DIFW spokesperson Mark Latti notes that Glowa declined to reveal his trail camera’s location, hindering agency efforts to confirm or refute a wolf sighting. But the issue for biologists, as Webb points out, is that you can’t view photos or videos and conclude with much authority what percentage of coyote, wolf, or dog DNA an animal possesses. One canid in the agency’s 2014 study exhibited 89 percent wolf ancestry but was among the smallest animals out of the 100, essentially indistinguishable from other canids in the study. Even having an overwhelmingly wolf ancestry, Webb argues, doesn’t necessarily make a canid a wolf. As important as DNA is the ecological role an animal plays in the wild. “There’s no evidence that the animals are functioning as wolves,” Webb says. Maine’s canids feed on mice, squirrels, grouse, and even, at certain times of year, deer. “However,” Webb says, “we essentially see zero predation by the coyotes we have here on moose.” According to Webb, the department has investigated the deaths of some 500 radio-collared moose, and none were killed by canids. “That is pretty clear evidence to us that the canid we have here is not functioning ecologically as a wolf.”

Glowa’s detractors acknowledge that his basic premise isn’t unreasonable: eastern wolves have a presence in Quebec and could potentially cross the border. Glowa acknowledges that he’s never actually seen one in the flesh (at least one that’s been positively identified — he currently has a roadkill carcass in his chest freezer on which he says he’s awaiting testing results). But that’s likely because wolves don’t want to be seen, he says, and run at the first sound of a truck. To find evidence, Glowa insists, you have to look. And he argues that his coalition of volunteers has, on a shoestring budget, documented more wolves in the last two years than DIFW has in the last 30.

Another Maine Wolf Coalition trail cam shot. Courtesy of John Glowa.

Webb, for his part, sees no harm in collecting scat, but he doesn’t think it would be the best use of public funds — not least, he says, because eastern coyote and eastern wolf scat are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye. Moreover, his staff biologists perform track surveys and keep tabs on radio-collared moose. He points to one University of Maine researcher who’s collected over a million photos from trail cameras across the state. Any of these monitoring programs would turn up signs of breeding packs of wolves if they were back in Maine, Webb says. (The UMaine researcher, Bryn Evans, confirms she’s collected no images of wolves or ambiguously identified canids .)

“Wolves aren’t that good at hiding once they’re in a pack and reproducing on the landscape,” Webb says. “Based on my experience, if wolves were here, we would detect them pretty quickly.”

On Glowa’s campaign signs, a wolf’s head, placid and noble, looks out from an O in “Glowa for Governor.” He admits he is an underdog for the Democratic nomination — an understatement, if anything, in a year with a Democratic incumbent. He also knows he is likely to be pigeonholed as the “wolf man.” Glowa ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2016 and in a primary for a state senate seat in 2018. The day of our scat search, he shows me a framed copy of a political mailer sent by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s political action committee during his 2016 run. It reads, “John Glowa Wants Wolves, Lots of Wolves, in Maine.” Next to his face is a picture of a wolf, hostile and snarling.

Showing teeth: the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine mailer opposing Glowa’s 2016 bid for the Maine State House. Courtesy of John Glowa.

Glowa remains proud of his wolf advocacy. He compares himself to another Maine politico with a quixotic mission. “I am the first environmentalist and animal/wildlife advocate to run for governor of Maine since Percival Baxter,” his campaign materials read, invoking the revered benefactor of Baxter State Park. But Glowa maintains that wildlife mismanagement isn’t the only thing motivating him, just the lens through which he came to see state government’s backwards approach. “I actually want to return the ecosystem to where it should be,” he says, “but also to return government to where it should be.”

During almost 30 years as an inspector for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, he developed a keen nose for sewage leaking from septic systems — and learned about Augusta’s inner workings. His last four years overlapped with the administration of Republican governor Paul LePage, and Glowa maintains he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do next to nothing because the executive branch didn’t want to enforce environmental laws. Today, he sees himself as a populist who speaks truth to power.

Some of the life experiences informing his campaign others might see as political liabilities. Glowa describes himself as “a mental-health consumer” and talks openly about taking medication to treat depression. “If I’m elected, I want to use my position as an example,” he says, “and work to encourage folks who need help to get it.” In 2018, his 43-year-old son was convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old. Glowa acknowledges the crime and says the difficult time helped his family see inside the criminal-justice system. Prior to his release from prison, his son contracted COVID, shedding light for Glowa on why state leaders had so little to say about the health of incarcerated Mainers during the pandemic. In 2020, a loved one died of an overdose, underscoring for him the need for more treatment and funding to address substance-use disorders. His mother recently died after a traumatic experience in the eldercare system. The run of anguish, he says, helps motivate him to seek change.

Out in the woods, after our fruitless quest for wolf scat, I watch Glowa record a campaign video for Facebook. Standing in front of Spencer Mountain, a 3,200-foot peak shrouded in fog, he declares, “I just want folks to understand my reason for running. Wildlife is just one very small portion of the whole big picture . . . The fish-and-wildlife management system in the state is a very good example of a bad example, and it’s just one of the many things in Maine that needs to be repaired.” Then, he suddenly seems eager to hit the road again. “My speech is over,” he concludes.

Glowa’s ability to challenge Governor Janet Mills in a Democratic primary hinges on collecting 2,000 signatures in support of his candidacy by the March 15 filing deadline. He confesses it’s been difficult, but he is adamant that he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate.

Which is perhaps why, when I ask if he’ll let out a howl, Glowa politely declines. But I don’t let that stop me, and tilting my head back, I let one rip.

“Louder!” Glowa says, egging me on. I howl again, and when I stop, the forest all around us is snow covered and still.

“This is what we usually hear,” Glowa says.