The New England cottontail rabbit is among the 51 species listed as Endangered or Threatened by the state or federal government. Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Maine is home to 51 animals that are currently listed as Endangered or Threatened by the state or federal government. On that list, you’ll find the puffin, the New England cottontail rabbit, the spotted turtle and a fish called a swamp darter — just to name a few.

Under the federal and state Endangered Species acts — signed into law in 1973 and 1975, respectively — these animals receive special protections and management attention because they are deemed to be at risk of becoming extinct. But there’s only so much that can be done, given limited government resources and factors that are beyond the government’s control.

“We have to play triage on that list,” said Charlie Todd, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who focuses on endangered and threatened species. “So that’s where I have to say, as a former raptor specialist, I think I can fix bald eagles.”

The bald eagle is one of Maine’s great success stories. A national symbol, the raptor was brought to the brink of extinction in 1960 because of the use of DDT, a pesticide that weakens the shells of their eggs. It was one of the first species to be placed on the federal Endangered Species List, and over the course of three decades the population was gradually restored. In Maine, Todd led the restoration effort. Today, hundreds of bald eagles nest in the state.

But each species has a unique story, and not all are as uplifting as the bald eagle’s.

“It’s never straightforward,” Todd said. “You’ve got wildcards like invasive species and climate change and contaminants and disease vectors that can come in and throw you for a loop.”

Species at risk

The recent plight of the little brown bat is a good example of a “wildcard” throwing biologists for a loop, Todd said. Once extremely common throughout the U.S., the little brown bat population has dropped more than 90 percent in the past 15 years due to White Nose Syndrome, a disease brought to North America from Europe in 2006 — likely on the gear of cave explorers.

Multiple government agencies, organizations and universities are currently working together to research and monitor white-nose syndrome in little brown bats. As a part of this effort, bats were transported to northern Maine in 2012 and placed in an old military bunker to hibernate. Researchers hoped that this artificial hibernacula would be free of the harmful fungus, which would allow more bats to survive the winter. The experiment was somewhat successful, with nine of the 30 bats surviving. Still, scientists are searching for a greater solution.

“No one would have predicted a fungus from Europe would have brought them to the brink of extinction,” Todd said. “The world is getting more complicated as we’re more connected.”

The New England cottontail presents a whole different set of challenges. The species is rapidly disappearing from Maine due to habitat loss. It requires scrubland, where thickets protect them from predators such as hawks.

Today, a tiny population of about 300 cottontails persist in southern Maine. In an effort to revive the dwindling population, private landowners and land trusts are joining forces with federal and state agencies to create cottontail sanctuaries — large swathes of habitat these little brown rabbits need to survive.

“It’s a kind of habitat that you can’t passively protect,” Todd said. “The land needs to be actively managed.”

Restoring species

Another interesting story is that of the Atlantic puffin, which nearly vanished from Maine islands in the late 1800s due to overhunting. To restore this seabird, ornithologist Stephen Kress transplanted hundreds of young puffins from Newfoundland to Maine between 1973 and 1986. He then attracted the birds back to the islands to breed using wooden puffin decoys.

In a similar fashion, the wild turkey — extirpated (driven into local extinction) from Maine due to overhunting in the 1800s — was successfully reintroduced to Maine in 1977, when the state government transported turkeys from Vermont to Maine. Biologists then waited for the population to grow, then trapped and transfered them to more areas in the state. Today, Maine is home to enough turkeys to support a turkey hunting season in the spring and fall.

“This loss and reintroduction of species is a complex dance that is ever ongoing,” said Paula Work, a curator at the Maine State Museum who has done extensive research on extirpated and extinct Maine wildlife. “We tend to choose to support things for which we can build an economy around, whether they are native or not. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s just what we do.”

Complicating things further, new wildlife species have moved into Maine from other regions over the years. The opossum is a recent example of this. North America’s only marsupial, it has expanded its territory north into southern Maine over the past decade or so.

“Although they end up with frostbite on their tails and ears, they survive quite well in Maine,” Work said. “The [movement of the] opossum is a natural expansion of a species.”

Getting ‘ahead of the curve’

Over time, the public perception in Maine and other states has shifted, placing a greater value on wildlife conservation and biological diversity.

Nowadays, in addition to targeting species that are listed as Threatened or Endangered, wildlife agencies are starting to focus on “species of greatest conservation need,” Todd said. These are native species that are declining or rare, running the risk of being listed as Threatened or Endangered in the near future.

“That’s a transition that’s really starting to escalate in recent years, to get ahead of the curve,” Todd said. “It’s kind of a hard pivot to make if resources and financial and personnel are limited. But over the past 40 years, society’s expectations from wildlife agencies has multiplied greatly because people know these problems exist. Now we don’t just tackle what we hunt or fish, but all that other stuff. It’s going to take some decades to catch up.”

If passed in U.S. Congress and signed into law, the new Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019 would help with this effort, providing states, territories and tribes with $1.4 billion annually for the conservation or restoration of wildlife and plant species of greatest conservation need. The bill is currently being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s a big ask that will be debated hard,” Todd said. “It would be a game changer on this subject. It’s dedicated funding for states to work on a meaningful scale, so we don’t have to wait until wildlife is in real trouble.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...