By Deirdre Fleming
Federal wildlife officials will hold what is expected to be a contentious public meeting in Augusta this week on whether protections are warranted for wolves in the Northeast.
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Wednesday's meeting at the Augusta Civic Center will help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide whether the region should continue to be included as part of the gray wolf's range. The agency also is considering whether the Eastern wolf, now listed as a subspecies of the gray wolf, warrants its own protection here as a unique species.
The issue is controversial. Wolf advocates hope federal protections could help wolves re-establish a viable population in Maine. Sportsmen, on the other hand believe a viable wolf population could harm the state's deer population and even make killing coyotes illegal.
The gray wolf is on the federal Endangered Species list and its listed range currently includes several western states and most of the Northeast, so it is illegal to kill them in Maine. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove the Northeast from the gray wolf's listed habitat, because they have no evidence that gray wolves exist in Maine.
The Eastern wolf is not protected anywhere in the United States and no known breeding populations exist in this country -- there are viable populations in Quebec and Ontario. But because it is considered a subspecies of the gray wolf, killing them is also currently illegal in Maine.
But Fish and Wildlife believes the Eastern wolf should be considered a separate species. If this happens, killing them would become legal unless the service decides they warrant federal protection of their own.
Holding public meetings is the first step in the service's "National Wolf Strategy" -- one meeting will take place Wednesday in Augusta. About 55 people attended the first meeting in Wisconsin on May 18, but more may attend the Maine meeting, and it is expected to be heated.
"It's safe to say any action taken regarding wolves would be controversial, whether that applies to protection or removing protection," said Martin Miller, the service's Northeast region chief of endangered species. "You can expect it to be a challenge because of the history of wolves."
For years there has been significant interest in whether wolves exist in Maine.
A nonprofit group, The Maine Wolf Coalition, was founded in 1994 to support wolf recovery here. Two years ago, about 50 volunteers participated in a two-year project attempting to document the presence of wolves in Maine by recording howls in northern Maine woods, said Daryl Dejoy, president of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine. Results were inconclusive.
Wolf advocates doubt any species of wolf will receive protection here.
"I don't hold out much hope that they'll list the Eastern wolf here if past history is any indication," said John Glowa, president and founder of The Maine Wolf Coalition.
"I'm pessimistic because I've worked for the past 17 years to help wolf recovery, and the service does next to nothing and has done nothing to protect wolves," he said. "This is their way of getting out of the wolf business in the East."
The review of the Eastern wolf's status in the Northeast could take several paths -- one of the most controversial would be placing them on the federal Endangered Species List.
Miller, the agency's regional endangered species chief, said that if a viable Eastern wolf population is found to exist and receives protection under the Endangered Species Act, it would be illegal not only to shoot wolves, but also coyotes, under the "similar appearance provision" of the act.
"Coyotes are a similar species or subspecies, so we would treat them as if they were listed," Miller said. "Shooting, killing, or trapping would be prohibited."
Many Maine hunters target coyotes, with encouragement from the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in order to reduce predation on the whitetail deer herd.
Wolves are already being killed in Maine despite the federal protection of the gray wolf, Glowa said.
The service has evidence of wolves shot in Maine, New York and Massachusetts, said Meagan Racey, the service's public affairs specialist in Hadley, Mass.
Neither the gray nor Eastern wolves are listed by Maine as endangered species.
Jerry McLaughlin, president of the Aroostook County Conservation Association, formed to help the deer herd, said hunters in northern Maine will fight any effort to increase the wolf population in Maine.
"We've got a problem here with coyotes, we don't need wolves," said McLaughlin, who formed the 250-member association three years ago.
The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine also vehemently opposes any wolf recovery efforts here.
"SAM has always opposed wolf re-introduction in Maine. If wolves naturally re-migrate into Maine, we believe that they should be treated as any other species. But barring that, a re-introduction would constitute a major disruption in the balances in our ecosystem that would be intolerable to the public," said Matt Dunlap, SAM interim executive director.
Maine law currently prohibits the reintroduction of wolves into Maine. Miller said if the service decides that recovery of an endangered population is necessary through reintroduction, the agency would work with the states to achieve a solution.
Miller said the Eastern wolf could only be listed as endangered here if a breeding population is located in the eastern United States.
"You can't list a species that does not exist," he said.
Miller said the service hopes to complete the work of taking the Northeast off the gray wolf's listed range by the end of the year, but the review of the Eastern wolf could take much longer.
"We're not trying to search out wolves," Miller said. "This is part of (the Eastern wolves') historic range. Is it secure and viable (there)?"
Dejoy, of the wildlife alliance, said he's not sure whether there is a breeding wolf population in Maine, but he is certain the state and federal governments don't know absolutely.
"There is definitely evidence they're finding wolves throughout New England, and they come from somewhere and are going somewhere," he said. "It's certainly not proof of a breeding population, but at least there is proof of a transient population."