HOLDEN, Maine — Wanted: a few dozen individuals willing to spend a night howling like wolves in Maine’s North Woods, and who won’t be scared off if they get a response.
The Wolf Inquiry Project, a collaboration of several conservation groups and biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plans to conduct “howling surveys” in select spots this summer in hopes of discovering whether wolves are resettling in Maine.
The project’s coordinators will hold a training and information session for interested volunteers from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 30, at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden.
The methodology to be used in the surveys is fairly simple: Go out into the woods at night, howl like a wolf (or coyote, for that matter) and record the results, if there are any. After several minutes, the pair of volunteers will head to the next location and repeat the process.
The harder task for project coordinators will be interpreting those results, not to mention navigating the constant controversy swirling around whether Eastern gray wolves are reclaiming some of their former territory in the Pine Tree State.
Several confirmed wolves have been killed in the Northeast in recent decades, including at least two in Maine during the 1990s.
The most recent case was in the western Massachusetts town of Shelburne, where a wild wolf was shot last year after it preyed on a farmer’s sheep and lambs. Biologists still are puzzled how an apparent lone gray wolf made it that far south.
Laura Sebastianelli, the project’s director, said she isn’t interested in the politics around wolf resettlement in Maine. Instead, Sebastianelli said she wants to use as many methods as possible — including sound recordings, visual reports and more scientific methods — to potentially determine whether wolves are in an area before they are killed. The Eastern gray wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“There is no one tool that is going to help us answer that question,” said Sebastianelli, a naturalist, educator and registered guide from Boothbay Harbor. “That is why sound analysis can be an important tool.”
The Wolf Inquiry Project conducted a pilot “howling survey” last summer in Maine. Sebastianelli said volunteers captured “repeated recordings” in one location that she described as very intriguing. She hopes larger-scale 2009 surveys will provide more baseline data.
One of the major challenges, she acknowledged, would be differentiating between coyote and wolf howls. The Eastern coyote that is commonplace in Maine can grow significantly larger than its western cousins, which may affect their vocalizations.
Sebastianelli said she hopes scientific analysis of the recordings will help shed light on any differences. While volunteers likely will receive some guidance on their howling techniques, Sebastianelli said that in her experience wolves and coyotes, like domestic dogs, have been very responsive to a person’s imitation of a howl.
“How they are interpreting that howl I cannot say,” she said with a laugh.
Mark McCollough, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is one of the project’s coordinators, will give a presentation during Saturday’s session on the status of the gray wolf nationally and in the Northeast.
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, wolves have not re-established themselves in the state and are unlikely to do so without additional protection. DIF&W has not developed any wolf recovery plans for Maine.
“Tracks and other evidence suggest there may be additional wolf-like canids in the state, but there is no conclusive evidence of reproduction or establishment of packs,” the department states on a Web page devoted to the gray wolf.
“Given the physical barrier to dispersal from Quebec posed by the St. Lawrence River, unsuitable agricultural habitat in southern Quebec, and liberal wolf trapping regulations in Quebec, it is highly unlikely that wolves can naturally recolonize Maine,” the site reads.
Others in Maine’s conservation community disagree and likely will be watching closely for any evidence of the wolf’s presence that is gathered during the howling surveys.
Volunteers typically will be out in the field from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., although some also will place remote digital cameras during the day to attempt to capture images of local wildlife. Sebastianelli said in order for the project to be successful from a scientific standpoint, it is important that volunteers remain objective and not begin their fieldwork with foregone conclusions about whether wolves are or are not present in Maine.
Other groups involved with the Wolf Inquiry Project are: Wildlife Alliance of Maine, Maine Audubon and Maine Earth Institute.
For information on volunteering for the project, contact Laura Sebastianelli at email@example.com or 350-9535.