May 25, 2019

Did Man Extirpate the Caribou from Maine?

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I was reading Part II of V. Paul Reynolds’ report about “Wildlife Restoration Projects.” He wrote mostly about Maine’s two attempts to restore caribou to northern Maine and seemed to suggest that with years of gained knowledge, perhaps it was time to try again. I’m not so sure about that, but…..

I did want to add to something that he wrote about the extirpation of caribou in Maine when he wrote: “Historical documents indicate that Maine’s last remaining caribou were killed off by market hunters who sold them to big city restaurants.” I won’t deny that market hunters made serious dents in deer, moose and caribou herds in their day. However, there are other historical documents that equally indicate the vanishing act of caribou and wolves cannot all be blamed on unregulated hunting.

A few years ago I did an extensive research piece on wolves in Maine from the 1600s until the time they were essentially declared missing in action. Readers should understand that this work was nearly 100% taken from 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 – The University of Maine Press, Orono, Maine 2010.

It seemed that around the mid-1800s there existed, even then, disagreements as to whether deer, moose and caribou “disappeared” due to wolves or hunters. One writer made the claim, “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.”

A hunter and trapper, in the book described as experienced, claimed: “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.”

Those that have some knowledge of the habits and behavior of wolves, understand that many things influence their behavior. For example, at times wolves can eat up all their prey. If this happens, the wolf moves on and the possibility exists that if the prey doesn’t return, neither will the wolf. If there exists alternative prey, i.e. there is more than one prey species to feed wolves, the large predator canine may never leave an area. It would probably require quite a number of wolves in Maine to seriously reduce or extirpate moose, deer and caribou.

In the quote above, we read of the first indication that wolves were not “exterminated” and simply up and left “just as the caribou left us.” This should be important information to consider.

According to evidence found in the book of reference, wolves were mostly gone from the state by the mid-1800s. From around 1860 into the early 1900s, there were very few, to almost zero, recorded wolf kills – the last official wolf kill took place in Andover, Maine in 1920.

One account in the Maine Sportsman, in 1900, of the absence of wolves, claims that, “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.”

It would seem this would indicate that with reports of wolves being missing from Maine by the mid-1800s, that in 1900, some 40 or 50 years later, there were still quite a few caribou, or at least more of them seen than deer or moose. One must honestly consider that if caribou “recovered” after a presumed disappearance of wolves, in 40 or 50 years, wouldn’t the deer and moose have recovered? Because there are so many influencing factors in wildlife management, that question cannot be simply answered. Other accounts from this book also indicate that after what appeared to be the absence of wolves, deer, moose and caribou made recoveries.

We also know that in the late 1800s Maine began it’s work to regulate the hunting and fishing activities throughout the state, with regulations well in force by the early 1900s.

Examination of the information provided in this book help to support the historic behavior of wolves, i.e. that once they had reduced the numbers of the prey to a certain level, the wolves took off for better hunting grounds. However, this event appears to have occurred nearly 50 years before the caribou disappeared.

It cannot be argued that many factors contributed to the disappearance of the caribou in Maine. That disappearance cannot and should not be completely attributed to hunting. We know that after the wolves mostly disappeared from Maine, the deer, moose and caribou recovered. If in 1900 loggers were reporting seeing “herds of 17 caribou” it was not market hunters and uncontrolled hunting that killed them after that.

If Maine was ever going to seriously consider a third try at caribou restoration, many, many factors must be considered other than introducing more of them this time. Perhaps the habitat of northern Maine simply cannot support caribou any longer. If caribou, in the very early 1900s, one day just walked out of the state – some believe they moved into New Brunswick and never returned – there had to be reasons. Do we know what those reasons were? Are we interested in finding out? Perhaps knowing what took place in the early 1900s would answer a lot of questions as to whether another attempt at caribou restoration would work.

Some things to consider:

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