When Maine achieved statehood in 1820, it was home to a number of wild creatures that are no longer seen in the region today. Wolves, caribou, panthers and rattlesnakes are among the animals found roaming the woods and waters of Maine 200 years ago.
Now they’re all gone.
Many local extinctions can be traced back to unregulated hunting in the 1800s. But the story isn’t that simple. Even today, at a time when hunting is closely managed by the state, there’s a long list of species at risk of disappearing.
“Natural forces take some species out,” said Charlie Todd, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who focuses on endangered and threatened species. “But somehow the actions of people have complicated the situation, whether it’s alterations to the landscape or changing the climate or introducing toxins into the environment.”
Over the past two centuries, the Maine wilderness has shrunk and changed dramatically as people have cleared land for farming, built cities and roads, dammed rivers and harvested timber. During that time, many of the state’s most abundant and iconic animals have neared extinction.
The bald eagle, for one, was almost defeated by pesticides. The beaver was eliminated from much of its range due to trapping. These two species and many others have bounced back thanks to conservation efforts. Others weren’t so lucky.
The woodland caribou
With large velvety antlers and cloven hooves suited for walking on snow and ice, caribou have roamed North America in herds for an estimated 2 million years. They have a long history in Maine, where for thousands of years they were hunted by indigenous tribes for their meat and thick hides.
European settlers also prized the caribou. By the mid-1800s, it was one of the most popular animals to hunt in the region, and newly built railways made the Maine woods accessible to more hunters.
“Because the meat was highly favored, these herds of caribou were often slaughtered by unscrupulous ‘market hunters’ and shipped to the cities as table fare,” wrote Matthew LaRoche, Superintendent of Allagash Wilderness Waterway, in an essay about the history of the Maine caribou for the Maine DIF&W.
Historical accounts of winter caribou hunts in northern Maine describe large herds gathering on frozen lakes, and hunters taking the opportunity to harvest as many as possible.
At the same time, timber harvesting, road development and the clearing of land for farming put a strain on the animal, which was better adapted for living in old growth forests.
Noting a dramatic decline in the caribou population — and other wildlife populations, including moose — a number of hunters voiced their concern in publications such as “Maine Sportsman” and “Forest and Stream” in the late 1800s. In response, Maine passed a law in 1899 that prohibited the hunting of caribou for the next six years. There was hope the population would bounce back. But the effort came too late.
People reported small caribou herds throughout Maine for several more years, with the last sighting coming out of the Katahdin Region in 1914.
In an experiment to see if caribou could be reintroduced to Maine, the state transported small herds of caribou from Newfoundland to Maine in 1963 and 1993, and released them in the Katahdin region. Both efforts failed. The caribou either migrated out of the area, fell to predators or were killed by a parasite carried by white-tail deer.
Perhaps the Maine wilderness had simply changed too much to support this lost species.
“We missed the window of reintroduction because we had taken out the majority of our old growth forest,” said Paula Work, a curator at the Maine State Museum who has done extensive research on early Maine wildlife. “Even if the species could be reintroduced, we don’t know whether they would have needed to have knowledge of wintering grounds or would have regained that knowledge.”
The passenger pigeon
The passenger pigeon was once the most common bird species in North America. But in the 1800s, it was hunted out of existence.
“Flocks would darken the skies in Maine,” Todd said.
In addition to being a cheap source of meat, passenger pigeons were seen as pests. Maine farmers in the 1800s guarded their crops from pigeon flocks, which would descend on fields to eat corn, wheat and barley.
“People tend to remove things they see as a risk to their economies,” Work said. “People are very good at killing things out.”
This story may seem similar to the caribou’s, but there are some major differences. First, the caribou was viewed as a valuable game animal, while the passenger pigeon was not. Also, while lost to Maine, the caribou still thrives in parts of Canada. The same cannot be said for the passenger pigeon.
The last passenger pigeon reported in Maine was shot in Dexter in 1896. Once it was realized that the species was in peril of becoming extinct, there was an effort to breed the bird in captivity. But in 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Once a top predator of the Northeast, the gray wolf was extirpated from 95 percent of its range during European settlement. In many states, including Maine, a bounty was placed on the animal. They were hunted, trapped and poisoned.
Why? Like the pigeon, the wolf was seen as a threat to people’s livelihood.
The famous writer Henry David Thoreau wrote of Maine wolves attacking sheep and being killed with poisoned bait in his 1864 book “The Maine Woods.” By 1890, it’s believed that all wolves had been driven out of Maine.
But it wasn’t too long before a new predator moved in. Migrating across the U.S., a smaller wild canine called the coyote entered Maine in 1960. By the time they got here, they had bred with wolves.
“They had wolf genes as a part of their makeup,” Work said. “The eastern coyote has about twice the bulk of the western coyote, with stronger jaws and longer legs.”
Today, wildlife biologists believe about 15,000 coyotes live in the state. Large and powerful enough to take down white-tailed deer, they are well-suited for the landscape. In fact, this predator is so common throughout Maine that hunters are allowed to hunt and trap them year round.
Lions, snakes and seabirds
Mountain lions roamed Maine until the late-1800s. A cat of many names, it’s also referred to as the eastern cougar, panther, catamount and puma. Like the wolf, this powerful animal was feared. European settlers killed cougars to protect themselves and their livestock. The last confirmed eastern cougar was trapped in Maine in 1938. However, Maine residents continue to report sightings of these large wildcats annually.
Another animal Maine people once feared, the timber rattlesnake, is a thick, black, venomous snake that could grow to as long as 5 feet. It once lived in the western mountains of the state but was gradually extirpated from Maine, likely at the hands of people, before the turn of the 20th century. Today, the species hangs on in New Hampshire, where it’s protected as an endangered species.
“They’re swimmers and just across the river,” Work said. “So it’s possible it has reintroduced itself [to Maine], but you’d have to look for them.”
Moving to the coast, another interesting species that disappeared from Maine — and the rest of the world — is the great auk, a large, flightless seabird that used to breed on rocky islands. The black and white bird measured over 2 ½ feet tall and had a large, hooked beak. People hunted it for its meat, eggs and soft feathers, driving it to extinction in the mid-1800s.
Also once found along the coast, Maine’s sea mink was larger than other mink species, with a broader snout and larger teeth, according to a study published in the Journal of Mammalogy. Sought after by fur traders, this semi-aquatic mammal — unique to New England and the Maritime Provinces — was hunted into extinction by the early 1900s. Its bones have been found in historic shell middens along the Maine coast.
Saving what we have
The loss of these animals, and many others, eventually led to federal and state legislation geared at protecting wildlife and wildlife habitats. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 are examples of these laws, but there are many others.
In addition, conservation organizations continue to pop up throughout the country, saving wildlife habitat and advocating for the protection of wild animals.
“I think in many ways it all just comes back to the fact that we increasingly value what we probably used to take for granted,” Todd said. “A lot of people just want to know that things are OK. So they may never expect to see a cobblestone tiger beetle, but they just want to know that it’s not gone.”
The state is no longer losing species like it once was, but its wilderness continues to change. Currently, 51 animal species are listed as threatened or endangered in Maine. Some populations are dwindling but others are on the rise.
Maine has also gained many animals in the past 200 years due to natural expansion, the rapidly changing climate and accidental introduction by people traveling from other areas. The coyote, opossum, turkey vulture and deer tick are all examples of “new” Maine wildlife. And these animals all affect ecosystems in ways that often can’t be predicted.
What creatures will roam Maine 200 years from now? It’s impossible to say, but it’s a safe bet that people will continue to have great influence on what stays and what goes.