Wolves Are Still With Us

Although extirpated from Maine by the 1890s, wolf DNA survives in the state’s thriving coyote population.

a coyote standing on the edge of Kimball Island, in Penobscot Bay

Ralston captured this coyote standing on the edge of Kimball Island, in Penobscot Bay, seeming to gaze out at Saddleback Ledge Light before swimming across the channel to neighboring Isle au Haut.

By Philip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston
From our April 2023 Animals issue

During Maine’s first two centuries of settlement, hillside farmers who raised sheep fiercely protected their flocks from depredations by wild animals. Cyrus Eaton’s History of Thomaston, Rockland and South Thomaston describes how, in 1816, sheep farmers in these coastal towns approved a $15 bounty on wolves after “one old she-wolf and a pack of five black whelps had been discovered.” Eaton goes on to record how “the people turned out, eager for their destruction.” Pursuers cornered the pack on the shore of what is now Owls Head. The wolves then started swimming for the Muscle Ridge islands, but “being headed off by a man in a boat, all but one came ashore on a point on the mainland . . . where they were beset by numbers of men. . . . The old wolf was shot through the body by Nathan Fales.” Eaton concludes, “This was about the last of wolves in this area.”

Hunted ferociously, wolves were extirpated from Maine by the 1890s, leaving what ecologists call “a vacant ecological niche.” Because wolves, by that time, had been exterminated throughout most of the eastern U.S., coyotes from western states and territories began inexorably spreading into habitats that wolves once occupied. The smaller canines moved eastward and northward and established breeding populations in Maine by the 1930s.

Western coyotes — as caricatured by Wile E., the Road Runner’s cartoon nemesis — are small and scrawny, generally three to four feet long and weighing between 20 and 30 pounds. But the eastern coyotes that have become established in Maine are larger, a result of interbreeding with relic wolf populations in the upper Great Lakes region and southern Canada. Maine coyotes generally weigh between 30 and 45 pounds and are four to five feet long, with coats described as “silver gray to grizzled brownish red.” The hybridized eastern coyote, which some refer to as a “coywolf,” is an opportunistic feeder and will eat any prey between the size of a grasshopper and a moose, but most of its diet consists of rabbits and birds, supplemented by wild berries and frogs and salamanders during warmer months.

As coyotes expanded into Maine, though, they also found a ready food source in Maine’s (much expanded, for lack of predators) population of white-tailed deer. Thereby, they encountered their own chief predator: the beast that walks upright. Coyotes can be legally hunted year-round in Maine, with no limit, and sporting clubs host coyote-hunting and -trapping contests that pay cash “bounties” — their stated goal to prevent deer predation. From Maine’s coyote population, which state biologists estimate at between 10,000 and 12,000 animals, an average 1,500 harvested coyotes are registered each year — mostly by trappers, with an unknown number more killed by hunters, who are not required to register. Coyotes and raccoons are the only game animals in Maine that can be legally hunted at night.

The topic of reintroducing wolves to Maine has been floated here and there ever since the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, in the 1990s. Of late, the number of wolves in Yellowstone hovers around 100, with hundreds more occupying the greater Yellowstone ecosystem outside of the park. The deliberate reintroduction of wolves will never happen in Maine if deer hunters have anything to say about it, but the wolf’s DNA is still with us in Maine’s thriving coyote population. And the farmers’ old antipathy is still with us as well.