A fourth possible wolf was documented in northern Maine woods on camera by a local organization in recent weeks, but there is disagreement between the state and citizen scientists about whether wolf populations truly exist in Maine.
After being exterminated more than a century ago, individual wolves could exist in Maine, according to the state, but it denies the presence of any breeding wolf populations.
The South China-based Maine Wolf Coalition, an organization that documents and supports wolf recovery in the state, captured images and videos of a fourth possible wolf last month “as it chases an animal, walks up towards the camera and displays a raised leg urination,” according to an April 28 press release.
In 2019, the coalition also collected a scat sample from an undisclosed location of the third possible wolf detected in Maine. The 2019 animal was the first to be documented as a wolf through its DNA, according to lab results, the press release said.
The lab results of the sample, which was tested by Trent University in Canada, show that the animal had 84 percent eastern wolf ancestry. But there is debate among the scientific community over whether an eastern wolf is even considered a wolf species. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which also reviewed the report, said it considers the animal to be a hybrid species, not a wolf.
The coalition disagrees.
“Eighty-four percent is a very high percentage, and we would not consider it a hybrid,” said John Glowa, the president of the coalition. “There are very few if any pure eastern wolves left on the planet due to their historic interbreeding with coyotes.”
In Maine and New England, there has been a long-standing debate about the presence of wolves in the region. But there is no agreed-upon standard for DNA samples or a threshold for what is considered a hybrid species, according to Nathan Webb, the director of the wildlife division at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“There is no scientific or regulatory consensus on the genetics of wolves in the Northeast as to how to definitively distinguish between an eastern coyote and an eastern wolf, or whether an eastern wolf represents a distinct wolf species or a hybrid,” Webb said.
But the state maintains that the lab results of the 2019 animal are that of a hybrid species, the eastern coyote, which comes from wolf and coyote parentage but cannot be classified as a wolf.
Because of a lack of scientific consensus, however, “two individuals can look at the same report and have a different idea of what the animal is,” Webb said.
Wolves were eradicated from Maine by the 1900s, often through government-sponsored killing programs. Wolves were viewed as a threat to livestock and killed through hunting, trapping and poisoning.
Wolves in the Northeast?
In the 1990s, two animals spotted in Maine were believed to be gray wolves, according to the coalition. Some experts say that wolves could be coming into the northeastern United States by crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River as they make their way south through Canada.
The species are legally protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
The coalition believes multiple wolves have been killed in the Northeast states, most recently in New York in 2021, because they were mistaken for coyotes by hunters.
Glowa, who has spent three decades working to document the presence of wolves in the state, maintains that state agencies have not presented any evidence disputing the presence of wolves.
“There are wolves, and we believe it’s the state’s job to manage them,” he said. “An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The coalition consists of a group of five volunteers and a wildlife biologist, who regularly set up trail cameras and search the woods looking for scat samples in Maine.
While the department investigates credible reports of large wolves, according to Webb, it does not have “an active, expansive statewide program to survey for wolves specifically,” he said.
“The reason for that is that there’s no indication that they’re here and breeding, so it wouldn’t be a good use of public funds until there’s some evidence that they actually exist in Maine,” Webb said. He previously worked as a lead wolf biologist in Alberta, Canada.
In other Wolf News
The department does not consider the 2019 scat sample as credible evidence of a wolf presence in Maine because of “the insufficient DNA sample,” Webb said.
The sample did not have “sufficient DNA volume remaining to reanalyze the sample with a full profile,” according to the lab analysis from Trent University. Additionally, the results were based on the mitochondrial DNA, or the female contribution, which is only half of the DNA, Webb said.
“We also have no evidence, documentation or assurance that the sample was taken from Maine, and geneticists have told us that the sample quality was too low to confidently assign the species,” he said.
The state asked the Maine Wolf Coalition for information about where the sample was collected, but the coalition declined to say.
“We refuse to do so because we don’t trust them,” Glowa said. “We believe we have asked them to take steps to protect these animals, and they should not have us do their job for them.”
So far the coalition has collected 170 scat samples throughout northern and western Maine, and is awaiting results from Michigan Technological University, he said. Glowa expects there will be additional wolves documented through this testing.
“We have proven that wolves are here, but the government won’t acknowledge them,” he said.
Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.