A look at the fate of just a few animal species during the 200 years that Maine has been a state tells the larger story of how humans impact wildlife. Whether these animals have vanished, returned, arrived or thrived all have direct or indirect links to human behavior.

Keep in mind, there is also a lot we don’t know. Biologists don’t have all the data, Noah Perlut, chair of University of New England’s Department of Environmental Studies, pointed out. To take just one example, the breeding bird survey now conducted annually across Maine wasn’t even begun until the 1960s.

“On the one hand, that is a really rich data set,” Perlut said. “On the other hand, it’s nothing compared to how long we’ve been here. It’s not ecologically relevant data.”

Here is a glimpse of the fortunes of a few species that roamed the forests, meadows and skies here at the time Maine became a state.

The Departed: Caribou

Since as far back as the 1700, several mammals have been extirpated from Maine or its waters, largely because of over-hunting. They include the gray whale, the eastern cougar (now extinct, although other subspecies of cougars survive in other parts of the country), the gray wolf, the wolverine and the woodland caribou.

In the 1800s, caribou were “a source of food that was readily available,” said Mark McCollough, the endangered species biologist in Maine with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So much so, in fact, that they “sustained the early settlers in northern Maine.” But the last recorded caribou in Maine was shot on Mt. Katahdin’s Tablelands in 1908, he said.

More than 50 years later, in 1963, the state attempted to reintroduce them. Biologists brought 20 caribou from nearby Newfoundland to Baxter State Park. The project failed, though biologists at the time were not certain why, McCollough said. Portland businessmen funded a similar effort in 1986. Twenty caribou from Newfoundland were taken to Orono to breed. Later, 30 were released in Baxter, this time with radio collars affixed to their necks so scientists could track and study them more closely. Once again, not a single caribou survived. All fell prey to hungry bears or to brainworm, a parasite carried by, but not affecting, white-tailed deer.

“It illustrated how difficult it is to try to right some of the wrongs that happened 100 or 200 years ago,” McCollough said. “If the environment has changed, there are factors that we may not even be aware of, like diseases that were not present 100 years ago.”

White-tailed deer are among the most prolific of Maine’s native animals. Unlike some other species, they thrive in proximity to man. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The Survivor: White-Tailed Deer

Three commonly seen mammals have persisted in Maine at least since the early settlers arrived: moose, bear and white-tailed deer. But only the last has reached extraordinary numbers. In 2019, the statewide population was estimated between 230,000 and 250,000, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“They live in cities and in deep woods,” McCollough said. “They live alongside us and benefit from the changes we make to the environment, whether carving out backyards or forestry projects. They like a fragmented forest.”

At the turn of the 1800s, when northern Maine was first settled, few deer lived there, McCollough said. Their numbers grew in the next 100 years with the advent of log drives and the arrival of forestry. Such timber practices created new tree growth, providing the deer with the low-lying branches they like to eat. Coupled with urbanization in southern Maine, which fragmented the forests, deer numbers exploded.

“Whatever happens with climate change, I have no doubt that deer will still be here 200 years from now,” McCollough said.

The Returnee: Peregrine Falcon

In this 2004 photo, a peregrine falcon flies off from an old power line tower after dining on a pigeon it captured under the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland. John Ewing/staff photographer

Some good news: some of the species that vanished from Maine over the last 200 years have since returned. Typically, humans played a role both in their disappearance and their revival. As hunting practices ended or were curtailed, and as pollutants and insecticides were cleaned up or banned, a few species that roamed Maine historically are repopulating the state.

The fastest bird in the world – the peregrine falcon — was once extirpated from Maine. The peregrine, which can fly more than 200 mph, nested in the eastern United States until the early 1960s when widespread use of the insecticide DDT pushed the birds to the brink of extinction. The federal government listed them as endangered in 1970. Although DDT was banned in 1972, the raptor is still considered endangered in Maine. Through reintroduction efforts, however, their numbers here have grown.

A total of 153 young peregrines were reintroduced in Maine between 1984 and 1997. Since 2009, Maine has been home to at least 25 nesting pairs, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Efforts by the state to create nesting platforms for the birds are ongoing.

“In a lot of regions of the Northeast, peregrine falcons only nested on cliffs,” Perlut said. “Now they are nesting on bridges and quarries and buildings. That is adding more pairs than maybe were here historically.”

A turkey vulture soars over the tree line with the ocean in the background as seen from Mt. Agamenticus. Turkey vultures have been moving north, including to Maine, in recent decades. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Newcomer: Turkey Vulture

Probably no animal better illustrates the resiliency of a newcomer in Maine than the coyote, which migrated across the country from the western United States in the 1940s. If it can survive in New York City’s Central Park, why not Maine? And it does.

A number of other non-native species have successfully moved here, too, including two species of vultures: the turkey vulture and the black vulture. The first documented breeding pair of turkey vultures arrived in 1970; they are now widespread across the state. In the past few years, there have been reports that black vultures are breeding here, too, Perlut said.

What drew them north? One theory credits urbanization, he said. Others “believe birds follow highways, for the opportunity for road kill.”


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