AUGUSTA, Maine — A federal proposal to remove wolves in Midwestern states from the Endangered Species Act is causing alarm in Maine among wildlife advocates who fear the delisting also could end legal protections for wolves in the Northeast — if they exist, that is.
Earlier this spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that gray wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and other Great Lakes states had rebounded to the point where the animals may no longer merit federal protection.
But the proposal to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act list may affect Maine and 28 other states.
“Wolves in the Northeast are not gray wolves,” Mary Parkin, endangered species recovery coordinator for the wildlife service in the Northeast, told an audience on Wednesday night. “They were thought to be gray wolves until very recently. But after looking at genetic data … it appears that we have a different subspecies here.”
That subspecies, according to the agency, is the same type of wolf that still prowls areas of eastern Canada — including just across the border in neighboring Quebec. And right now, the eastern wolf is not listed on the endangered species list, meaning that any wolves that appear in Maine would not be protected.
Representatives of wildlife advocacy groups on Wednesday urged fish and wildlife biologists not to move forward with plans to remove wolves from the list, arguing the changes would remove any protections for the wolves that they believe already live in Maine.
“It will leave wolves without any legal protections whatsoever,” said John Glowa with the Maine Wolf Coalition. “We view the most recent proposal as the latest attempt of the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service to get out of the wolf business in the Northeast.”
As with the mountain lion or cougar, the existence of wolves in Maine is a hotly debated topic.
There have been four documented cases of wolves in the Northeast since the animal was added to the Endangered Species List, two of which occurred in Maine. But biologists argue that those wolves were likely transient animals that crossed over from Canada. Officially, there is no evidence of a breeding population of wolves in Maine or anywhere else in the Northeast.
As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review, the agency is initiating a “status review” of the eastern wolf in Maine and the other eastern states where wolves existed before humans hunted them to extinction.
But several speakers insisted wolves can easily cross the frozen St. Lawrence River in Quebec and make their way into Maine, and even if wolves are not breeding in Maine, the species deserves special protection from the federal government until they are re-established.
“I could be wrong, but I don’t see any harm in doing that,” Dana Herrick of New Portland told agency representatives during a public hearing at the Augusta Civic Center. “I see it as erring on the side of caution.”
Of course, the idea of wolves returning to Maine does not sit well with everyone. Opponents of reintroduction of the predator say the animals will only further decimate the dwindling deer herd in northern Maine.
Jean Arsenault of Mexico blamed coyotes — a non-native species that has filled the wolf’s ecological niche in Maine — for the decline of the deer herd in recent decades. He said proving wolves exist in Maine will mean the end of trapping and hunting because of restrictions.
“Putting predator species in Maine without knowing the consequences or results is criminal,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to announce a decision on the delisting of the Great Lakes wolf as well as the results of the eastern wolf status review by the end of the year. But the agency is under no obligation to take steps to help the species recover if it is found to exist in Maine or elsewhere.
And even if the federal government proposed to add the eastern wolf to the Endangered Species List, the process would take time, potentially creating a gap in legal protections for the animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments through July 5 on the proposal to delist the Western Great Lakes gray wolf and the associated impacts on Maine and other Northeastern states. Comments can be made through the website www.regulations.gov, using the docket number [FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029].
Written comments can be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. [FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029], Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203.
Information on the proposal is also available online at www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf.