September 22, 2019

Wolves in Maine in the 1800s – Part V (Attacks on Humans and Extermination or Migration?)

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Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

When studying and reading through, “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, it becomes clear that there was not always agreements about wildlife. This particular book chronicles the “observations” of hunters, trappers, outdoor writers and historians. Not always do the observations of one person agree with the observations of another. This is the same thing we see today in that people jump to conclusions based on brief and not necessarily scientific observations or at least those based upon sound and thorough data. And at times, the observations of the very seasoned hunter or trapper were scoffed at. More on this in a moment.

In previous parts I have shared information I had found about human encounters with wolves. For decades in this country we have had it drummed into our heads that it were hunters and trappers mainly responsible for the extermination of wolves and also that there has never been any wolf attacks on humans in the Lower 48 States. Those who read their history, know both of these claims are not entirely true.

In 1884, in a February issue of “Forest and Stream”, a writer tells of what it was like living in Maine and dealing with wolves. He writes: “Some fifty years ago these animals [wolves] were numerous and terribly ravenous in the many sparsely settled districts of New England, and the farmers found it impossible to raise sheep, and even calves and pigs were frequently destroyed. Instances were numerous where strong men were attacked and overpowered by packs of wolves.”

This is yet another report and confirmation of regular and frequent attacks on humans by wolves.

But disagreements began to mount as to the validity of two events concerning wolves – when they when “extinct” in Maine and what caused that “extinction”. (I put the word “extinction” in quotes because it has never been determined if the wolf in Maine was effectually exterminated or even what exactly defines extermination.)

Some writers believed that by around the 1880s the wolf that roamed the Maine landscape had disappeared and there seems to have been just as many who disagreed with that assessment.

In another article that appeared in “Forest and Stream” in 1883, a writer recounts the encounter with wolves on the Mattawamkeag River. The author tells of the “blood-curdling” howl of the wolf that frightens all but the very experienced of outdoorsmen. He also tells that on only three occasions in his life did he witness a wolf bark and he says that in each of those events the bark was directed at a human. He describes the bark this way, “The tone is very deep, delivered slowly and deliberately, and each time in exactly the same key, and is in a strange contrast to the rapid, rasping yelp of the coyote.”

On the Mattawamkeag River, a member of the lumber camp had spotted a deer laying dead on the ice of the river. On the opposite shore, was a wolf and it was “barking” at this man, evidently in the fashion described above. The man returned to camp and it was decided to use a bottle of strychnine and poison the meat of the deer in hopes to kill the wolves.

When the man returned to the bait site the next morning, he was quite surprised in what he discovered: “On returning alone to the post, early the next morning, I found that the two wolves had called to the feast the largest pack known in that vicinity. Not a vestige of the deer remained but the hair, and that was so scattered and trampled upon as to be almost indistinguishable………They had gone up the river, and an old hunter who camped about five miles above told me afterward that he counted the tracks of forty-two where they had spread out on a big meadow, that they ate all the poisoned bait that he had out….”

Reports at this time were contrary and confusing. As I said, some were stating the wolves were all dead and yet we find accounts as those described above.

By 1884 there was a “Commission of Fisheries and Game” in Maine. It appears from the accounts in this book that even the commissioners believed the wolves were all gone as a report by the Commissioner of Fisheries and Game scoffingly wrote, “To the poachers’ cry of wolf, the Commissioners have responded by the offer of a double bounty for every wolf scalp. No claims have been presented.”

In a report filed by M. Chamberlain, he writes, “[Wolf] Was common from about 1840 until about 1860; since then, it has entirely disappeared.”

Perhaps the clearest indication of the disagreements between those living in the area about the existence of wolves, comes from an “anonymous” writer, I assume an editorial, in 1884 in the “Forest and Stream”. In this, the writer, again in a scoffing manner, speaks of how the Commission called on what they believed to be false claims that wolves were still killing game and livestock. This is when the Commission doubled the bounty. This editorial is rebutted which I’ll get to in a moment.

Of interest in this piece is that the author speaks of what he believes to be the facts that wolves are now all gone in Maine. But why are they gone? He writes, “Curiously enough there are old settlers in Maine who retain the theory that wolves follow deer. They claim that there were no deer at the time of the wolves – ‘the wolves killed them all off’ – but that since the extermination of the wolves the deer have gone on increasing.”

In this editorial the writer clearly blames the hunters for killing off all the deer and not the wolves.

In the rebuttal I spoke about earlier, the author, an experienced hunter and trapper, says he can prove his facts that the deer are all gone and it was the wolf that killed them and that it was not the hunters that made the wolves disappear. He writes, “In 1853 wolves were very plenty, and for the next five years were not scarce, plenty could be found within sixteen miles of Bangor in 1857 and 1858. They seemed to leave quite suddenly, the last I know of positively being taken was killed by Frank Fairbanks in 1860 in Munsengun. I know the wolves were not exterminated, as from the time they were quite plenty till the time they disappeared, very few skins were brought in. They left of their own accord, just as the caribou left us.”

Little has changed over the years, I would guess, when it comes to dealing with wolves. 130 years ago the wolf was vehemently hated and yet there existed those who wanted to blame man for everything wrong with wildlife.

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