Thursday, April 4, 2019

Northeastern Wolves: Then and Now

On a moonlit night two hundred years ago, a dog-shaped shadow slipped through the Vermont woods. The large, shaggy canid emerged onto a hilltop pasture, raised its muzzle, and howled – a deep, throaty howl that reverberated through the hills. A chorus of wolves responded.

Wolves were common in the Northeast and most of the U.S. when European settlers arrived. And it didn’t take long for the settlers, who were steeped in folklore that portrayed wolves as evil, to wage war. Towns enacted bounties, to which livestock owners were legally bound to contribute, for every dead wolf brought in. In 1657, New Haven, Connecticut, offered five pounds to anyone who could kill “one great black woolfe of a more than ordinaire bigness which is like to be more feirce and bould than the rest, and so occasions more hurt.”

Although eastern wolves preyed mostly on deer and beaver before European settlers arrived, as the forests were cut and wildlife disappeared, the wolves were forced to rely more on livestock like sheep. Thanks to the abundance of this easier prey, wolf populations may have actually increased for a time.

In addition to livestock protection, some sought to eliminate wolves because they symbolized wilderness. When colonists arrived, “the whole continent was one dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men,” wrote John Adams in 1756. The settlers’ energies were devoted to vanquishing the wilderness, using its abundant resources, and creating a pastoral landscape of farms and villages.

All these efforts to eradicate wolves eventually succeeded. The wolf disappeared from most of southern New England by the end of the eighteenth century, but hung on in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and the Berkshires until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The same process played out nationwide, as wolves were reduced to five percent of their original range in the lower 48 states.

Today, we have a more enlightened view of the role predators play in the landscape. Endangered species protection has allowed wolf populations to recover in the Great Lakes states. Canadian wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and they naturally recolonized some Rocky Mountain states. Populations in these places are now stable or increasing.

Will wolves ever return to the Northeast? A 2011 report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that parts of our region, such as northern Maine and the Adirondack Park, have suitable wolf habitat with sufficient prey. However, proposals in the 1990s to reintroduce wolves in Maine were controversial, said Walter Jakubas, mammal group leader with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. People were concerned that wolves would frequent residential areas where deer densities were high.

According to Jakubas, the movement to reintroduce wolves also lost momentum when genetic analyses of eastern coyotes revealed a significant percentage of wolf genes. Coyotes had interbred with wolves in Canada on their migration from west to east, and it seemed likely that they would hybridize with reintroduced wolves. A survey showed the majority of Maine residents preferred to let wolves come back on their own.

If wolves do come back to our region, that’s likely how it will happen. A wolf was killed in the Adirondacks in 2001 and two were shot in northern Vermont in 1998 and 2006. Scientists concluded that all three were wild. Several wolves have been killed in Maine, said Jakubas, but based on their tame behavior, or hair analysis indicating they had fed on corn (probably dogfood) or were of Alaskan origin, they were determined to be captive wolves that had been released.

Jakubas has seen intriguing game camera photos of wolf-like animals and large canid tracks and believes Canadian wolves occasionally come into Maine. However, in his opinion, the likelihood of wolves establishing a breeding population there is “not impossible, but very low.”

The closest source population of wolves is in Quebec’s Laurentide Reserve, 75 miles from the Maine border. Ontario’s Algonquin Park, about 200 miles northwest of the Adirondacks, supports another wolf population. Still, there’s a lot working against a southerly migration. The St. Lawrence River, now kept ice-free in winter for ships, presents a major barrier. If an animal were to cross the river, it might not survive the journey through southern Quebec, with its strong tradition of hunting and trapping. Once across the border, liberal coyote hunting seasons in the northeastern states would be another obstacle. Although wolves are protected as a federally endangered species here, hunters could easily mistake them for coyotes.

This is not to say it won’t happen, though. If wolves are like their adaptable coyote cousins, which have survived and thrived despite centuries of human persecution, they may yet surprise us.

Susan Shea is a naturalist, conservationist, and freelance writer who lives in Brookfield, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

17 Responses

  1. Linda says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, very good information provided.

  2. Tim-Brunswick says:

    This is such baloney!

    Wolves in this country and Canada do and will kill/consume people. The only reason it does not happen here more than in Europe is because they have been conditioned since the arrival of early settlers with firearms, etc. that man is to be feared. Try an internet search of human/wolf fatalities Alaska/Canada

    Try “wolves in Russia” as a google search or read “The Real Wolf” by Ted Lyon & Will Graves. There are numerous “factual/historical” books on wolves in Europe/Russia that clearly show that wolves are not docile, human friendly creatures. For centuries and even currently in Siberia wolves have attacked, preyed upon the inhabitants of European/Asiatic countries who by law are mostly unarmed.

    This is not “Folklore”…this is reality. In some cases in Russia/Siberia wolf packs decimated the populations of some villages, preying primarily upon children and the weak/infirm. In recent history actual fatalities have occurred in both Canada and Alaska…unprovoked/predatory attacks. There are numerous documented incidents that were not fatal.

    Wolves are an integral part of the wilderness for sure, but inviting them to dinner and expecting a well mannered guest may prove to be an unpleasant surprise.

    • Boreas says:

      Interesting WIKI link. I see 2 fatalities from WILD wolves since 1943, and none of them in the lower 48. Yes, all larger predators can and do kill humans. But how often and why?

    • Suzanne says:

      Run for your lives, the wolves are coming to get you!

    • Ian Courts says:

      “The Real Wolf” by Ted Lyon & Will Graves is about as factual as Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs.

    • AG says:

      Wolves are wild animals… Wild animals are not “docile, human friendly creatures”. Do you know how many people are killed crashing into deer? Guess what – if you put down your rifle and get up close and personal with a stag – he might gore you. Fact… Hippos kill more humans in Africa than lions or leopards.
      In any even – I have zero clue what you mean by inviting wolves to dinner. They belong in the wilderness

  3. Peter Klein says:

    Anyone who is afraid of any animal other than us human animals is stupid. Humans are the deadliest animals on the planet and they often kill without real need or reason.

      • Suji says:

        Mr. Brunswick, in all due respect for offering your research, this is not a very lengthy list, the most recent documented attack being in 2010. Most of the wolf attacks cited occurred in Alaska or Northern Canada, and never in the Adirondacks. (Or course, Daniel Boone was attacked by a wolf in 1761, but fortunately survived and kilt a b’ar.) If there is a problem with predatory canines, it is coyotes and hybrid coy dogs, not wolves. I see coyotes loping across our property, hear them yipping at night, and my neighbours saw one carry off their little old fox terrier in broad daylight one afternoon.

        Another problem might be feral pigs, hybrids mated with the wild boars introduced by Canadian game farms for sport hunters. They are far more dangerous and destructive than wolves.

  4. Paul says:

    Wolves don’t know what a gun is. Anymore than deer know what a car is that kills them like crazy!

  5. Richard says:

    Point of information: The St. Lawrence is often open in winter, but it is not “kept open” for winter navigation. At least not yet.

  6. Awade says:

    There may or may not be any wolves in eastern Connecticut, but I saw what I believe to be a coywolf on Interstate 95 near the RI border last fall.

    • Suzanne says:

      I have seen them, too, in Upstate NY, where I have a home in Northern Columbia/Rensselaer County. They are considerably larger than the coyotes I’ve seen at our camp in the Adirondacks. One was killed on the road near my house — it was a beautiful animal, with thick grey fur and a long bushy tail. I left it in the underbrush until Spring when I retrieved the skull, boiled it to clean it up and gave it to a friend who collects bones. In retrospect, I should have taken it to the DEC to get a definitive analysis as to its ancestry.

  7. Big bad wolf says:

    I had to read this for science…

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