The man behind Maine’s license plates

Mark McCollough, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, drew the designs for Maine's chickadee and loon license plates.
Photo courtesy of Mark McCollough
Mark McCollough, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, drew the designs for Maine's chickadee and loon license plates.
By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN
Posted March 03, 2011, at 8:03 p.m.

You may or may not know Mark McCollough, but there’s not a person in Maine who doesn’t know his artwork. Up until a few years ago, Maine had only two license plates — the chickadee and the loon. Both were drawn by the same man, an endangered species biologist who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mark first came to Maine for graduate school in 1979 and never left. We recently chatted for a while at his home in Hampden. With a cup of tea in his hand and Oreo the cat purring in his lap, Mark shared a bit of his story and the story behind Maine’s chickadee and loon license plates.

“Why Maine?” I asked him.

“All the wildlife!” was his easy reply. ”Maine is a great state to work in if you’re interested in the outdoors and wildlife … we have lots of unique species.”

Maine’s geographic position puts it on the margins of both northern and southern regions, he explained, so we get a mix of northern and southern plant and wildlife species. There are Canada lynx and pine martens, which are more typical of the boreal area of Canada, and we have spotted turtles, hickory and white oak, which are from the South. And then there are all the coastal species. “Maine is a really important area for biodiversity,” he said.

Mark’s love of the outdoors goes back to a childhood in rural Pennsylvania that included camping and visits to national parks with his family. He became interested in wildlife after taking classes at a conservation school as an eighth-grader and had decided by the time he was in ninth grade to become a wildlife biologist.

Fourteen seems an early age at which to choose a professional path, but Mark’s interest in artwork began even earlier. “I was just home visiting recently,” he laughed, “and found some old stuff from when I was 5 or 6 years old.” By the time Mark was studying forestry and wildlife in college, his artistic endeavors naturally gravitated toward wildlife art. He has co-written several books on wildlife and illustrated several others. He also publishes a monthly column in Northwoods Sporting Journal called “Northwoods Sketchbook.”

Another way he has applied his artistic skill has been through fundraising, which brings us to the license plate story.

“There has always been a problem trying to raise funds for nonhunting wildlife,” Mark said. In the early 1990s, when Mark was working for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine had never had a special license plate to raise funds, but the department decided to give it a try. The loon seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Fred Hurley, the head of resource management, asked Mark to do a sketch.

Mark did a quick sketch with colored pencils, planning to do a more polished version later if it was approved. Evidently they liked his work unpolished — before Mark knew it was happening, his pencil sketch was on the assembly line, being printed on license plates.

He may not have felt it was his best work, but he is very pleased about the fundraising outcome. The loon plate brought in $600,000-$700,000 a year for nongame and endangered wildlife during its early years. For special plate purchasing, “We had one of the highest participation rates in the country.”

Years later, when it was time to change the old Maine lobster plate, the Maine Department of Transportation contacted Mark about chickadee sketches for the new plate. While his son and daughter were swimming one day at Duck Lake near Aurora, he watched chickadees and drew sketches.

“That’s how the chickadee plate came to be,” said Mark, then added, “It’s a much more polished sketch than the loon.”

That is the story of how one unassuming wildlife enthusiast has touched an entire state. “Almost everybody in Maine owns my artwork,” he smiled. “They just don’t know it.”

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/03/living/the-man-behind-maine%e2%80%99s-license-plates/ printed on April 16, 2014