August 20, 2018
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Maine’s mystery: Where did all the caribou go?

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN


Caribou Have Disappeared But No One Knows the Reason


Perhaps Their Feed Has Grown Scarcer and Perhaps It’s Wanderlust — But They’ve Gone.

With chilling accuracy, Maine newspapers annually marked the demise of the state’s caribou herds more than a century ago. This four-tier headline appeared in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 28, 1910.

“Notwithstanding the annual slaughter of deer and moose in the Maine woods it is probably true that both of those species of animals are increasing here. But the caribou, which 15 years ago were numerous all over the northern part of the state, have gone. It is doubtful there is a single one this side of the Canadian border today,” concluded the Commercial that year.

It had been illegal to hunt caribou in Maine since 1899. Before that they were one of the state’s most important big game animals, attracting ”sports” from all over the country.

Ironically, the person credited with killing the last legal caribou was none other than Fly Rod Crosby, the legendary booster of Maine’s Great Outdoors. That was 1898.

The greatest mystery of all was why state game officials and people like Ms. Crosby didn’t understand the caribou herds were disappearing.

Caribou were different from deer and moose, said the newspaper reporter. They were easier to shoot. It had not been uncommon for whole herds to be slaughtered by unscrupulous “pot hunters.”

Sometimes, instead of running away, caribou had been known to “surrender” in order to have a curious look at the hunters. “When shot at the herds would not run away, but would often circle around and around, deliberately forming a rim of death,“ wrote the reporter.

While some hunters would keep on shooting, dismissing such behavior as “stupid,” others were sickened by the business of shooting a whole herd of the passive animals.

The belief that they would soon be back was common in newspaper stories.

“The caribou is a migratory animal, and, when the feed in one section of the country has been exhausted as was undoubtedly the case in Maine when they left, they always move to other regions where it is more abundant,” speculated a Commercial piece on Oct. 20, 1911. “There is no reason to suppose they have left the state for good and any season may witness their return in considerable numbers. They are very plentiful in some parts of New Brunswick.”

Actual sightings by reliable individuals helped fuel such optimism.

Bert F. Spencer was a state game warden who patrolled 35 townships along the Canadian border from the Castonia settlement to Baker Lake at the headwaters of the St. John. He was “a man of unquestioned veracity,” reported a piece in the Commercial on Dec. 5, 1911.

“If anyone tells you there are no caribou in Maine, don’t you believe them for I have seen them with my own eyes, a herd of eight caribou, within the past three weeks at Burnt Land Brook,” Spencer said. He had also seen them at 9-Mile Brook some distance away, and J.J. Sands, a trapper from Jackman, could corroborate his story.

In April of the following year, another reliable sighting was reported. C.H. Collins of Rainbow Lake Camps had seen a small herd near Mount Katahdin, reported the Commercial on April 4.

Another source mentioned in the story was Guy Haines, a well-known guide from Norcross, who had seen tracks near Mount Katahdin.

Also John Wilson, chairman of the Maine Fish and Game Commission, had had reports recently from “guides, lumbermen and woodsmen” of a small herd in the “Woolastook region of northwestern Maine.”

The reporter concluded, “This looks as though the caribou, after an absence of more than twelve years, has come back.” That was the hope of “every male who carries a gun into the woods.”

Every now and then, however, a naysayer would emerge from among the reliable sources. One of these pessimists, who may in fact have formed the silent majority, was a Bangor man, “a veteran hunter” quoted anonymously on Sept. 7, 1912.

“The day when the caribou will go the way of the buffalo … is not far distant,” he told a Commercial reporter. “Even if a few of them are to be found in Maine this season, I am strongly of the opinion that they will never be found here again in any considerable numbers. The sun of the caribou is fast setting.”

Nevertheless, the hopeful pieces predominated. One such analysis, a brief story in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 10, 1913, predicted that the caribou would return to northern and eastern Maine because the deer seemed to be migrating toward the Rangeley Lakes region in western Maine. Deer always drove out caribou with their feeding habits. It probably wouldn’t be legal to shoot them for awhile, however, the writer suggested.

A century ago this week, other important sighting stories appeared in both Bangor dailies. Two hunters from Philadelphia, John J. Newbegin and S. Philip Wilson, reported seeing “a dozen or more of the somewhat mysterious herd of caribou which are supposed to inhabit the Katahdin region,” reported the Commercial on Nov. 21, 1914.

Newbegin said he managed to snap a photograph of the small herd “and feels confident that he secured a good picture which he will develop when he reaches home.”

The story added the fact that Capt. W.T. Pollard of Foxcroft, “one of the best known wardens in Maine,” had “insisted” for several years that the Katahdin herd existed. That’s why there was talk of a game preserve around the mountain.

Exactly when these sightings ended I’m not certain. I can only add that efforts by caribou enthusiasts to import small herds back to Maine in the 1960s and 1980s both failed miserably. Mainers — both hunters and animal lovers — are still waiting patiently for the return of the caribou, perhaps by other means.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at

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