Maine Wolf Issue Embroiled in Politics and Misperceptions
State Deer Biologist Gerry Lavigne Challenges His Higher-ups As January Decision Time Nears
by V.Paul Reynolds

Wolves for Maine?

For state wildlife managers, outdoor recreationists, hunters, trappers, large landowners and environmental activists, this question has been on a slow simmer for many months. In mid-January of next year in Glens Falls, New York, the question - like a tea kettle rattling and spewing steam -will come to a full boil. At a "Workshop On Wolf Recovery," sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Defenders of Wildlife, so-called "stakeholders" representing every conceivable position on the wolf issue will be heard.

One of the key participants at this workshop will be the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W). Testimony given by Maine's Fish and Wildlife folks will play a pivotal role in formulating an answer to the long-lingering question: wolves for Maine?

Under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Gray Wolf is listed as endangered in Maine. According to USFWS biologist Paul Nickerson, a proposal is pending that would "downlist" the Gray Wolf to a threatened species in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. This same proposal would delist the Gray Wolf altogether in a number of other states including Massachusetts, and the other lower New England states. Nickerson says that "habitat suitability" is the determinant for delisting the Gray Wolf in some of our more populated New England states.

Although the Gray Wolf is common in Quebec, there is no certainty as to the prevalence of wolves in Maine. The carcasses of two probable wolves have been studied by MDIF&W. The killing of one wolf in Maine resulted in federal prosecution and stiff fines. State biologists have been unable to confirm much of a wolf presence in Maine. The state's wolf policy up to now had been fairly straightforward: strong opposition to wolf reintroduction, but a reluctant affirmation that a naturally recolonized wolf population would be managed and protected. In fact, Gov. King has gone so far as to say, "There is a conspiracy - it involves wolves, a national park, and more - and the goal is to stop harvesting trees and take away jobs."

Although the Fish and Wildlife Department in Augusta has sought to walk the middle of the road on the wolf issue and avoid alienating its diverse constituencies, the heat is being turned up as the January workshop approaches.

Gerry Lavigne, Maine's highly respected deer biologist, wrote a bold memorandum to his MDIF&W bosses last June that raised more than one eyebrow at headquarters. Concerned that his Department had not done enough to properly prepare for the January wolf workshop, Lavigne wrote," I am very concerned that we....will be ill-prepared to respond to these proposals."

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In his June memorandum, Lavigne argues that the Gray Wolf is out of danger, and that it is illogical to regard it as either endangered or threatened. He writes, "On the merits of species viability (biological considerations) alone, MDIF&W should conclude that the Gray Wolf does not merit recovery in the Northeast."

Lavigne also asserts that his Department's wolf policy "is confusing and lacks consistency." Lavigne raises the question as to how MDIF&W can draw a distinction between reintroduction and natural recolonization. "The real issue is this: if wolf recovery is not in the best interests of Maine and Maine people, both reintroduction and natural recolonization of the Gray Wolf to support political/social agendas should be opposed by this agency."

Lavigne's boss, Ken Elowe, who is Director of the Bureau of Resource Management, says that Lavigne's memo raises some good points, but that it is only his opinion and not representative of the Department. "Some of Gerry's assumptions about the workings of the Endangered Species Act just aren't valid," Elowe contends. He adds, " Wolves aren't all bad. Gerry has, as he concedes, an anti-wolf bias."

Lavigne's anti-wolf bias is shared by the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine (SAM). SAM's spokesman George Smith characterizes the Endangered Species Act as "a fearsome thing." Smith says that even though New Hampshire enacted legislation forbidding the introduction of wolves by the USFWS, it (New Hampshire) is "powerless to stop the process." Referring to the January workshop on wolves, Smith claims that "interested parties will begin putting together a plan for wolf introduction."

Paul Nickerson, the biologist in charge of the Endangered Species Act for USFWS's Northeast Region, says that Smith has it all wrong, that he has misrepresented the facts when he contends that the purpose of the workshop is to plan for introduction. "Contrary to Smith's remarks, we have no hidden agenda, no plan to force feed wolves down the throats of Maine folks. This is just flat out wrong! We cannot introduce wolves into Maine if the state and private landowners are opposed," said Nickerson.

Nickerson notes that when Smith cites the reintroduction of wolves in the West, he fails to mention that this was done on federal lands, not private lands, as would be the case in Maine.

Although Nickerson emphasizes that wolves cannot be introduced to Maine without state concurrence and cooperation, he candidly concedes that "it makes biological sense to have wolves in Maine. Your eco-system has no top food chain predator. Yes, wolves would kill some deer and moose, but they would also displace coyotes, which has been the experience in other states."

Lavigne, contrary to Nickerson's view, argues in another internal Departmental memo, that "wolves may negatively impact deer abundance in Maine, particularly in those very Wildife Management Districts which are being targeted for wolf recovery." Lavigne backs up his assertion with excerpts from a study done in Minnesota. There, heavy snow conditions, similar to Northern Maine, resulted in abnormally high predation of deer by Gray Wolves.

With a little more than a month to go before the State will make its voice heard at the Workshop On Wolf Recovery, it will be interesting to see how Maine will articulate its position on the controversial question of wolf introduction. Although MDIF&W's Elowe is not saying what the state’s position will be in Glens Falls, he hints that the state's wolf policy may undergo some revisions.

The question is: Will Lavigne's strongly held viewpoints influence a revised wolf policy, especially the one outlined at the January workshop? His recommended position, whether you agree or disagree, is refreshingly clearcut and in stark contrast to most policy positions that flow from governmental agencies. Lavigne writes: "Until there is a clear mandate that the public supports wolf presence, both man- induced and natural recovery of wolves should be opposed. This unified policy could be simple and straightforward: any wolf which is found in Maine is accorded the same legal status as the coyote."

In its planning process, Elowe points out, Fish and Wildlife has made an attempt through public opinion sampling to determine what Maine citizens want with regard to wolves. That survey, according to Elowe, indicates that one-third of Mainers oppose wolf introduction, one-third support introduction, and the other one-third support wolf protection if they migrate to our North Woods naturally. In a survey last spring conducted by a Maine monthly outdoor publication, the Northwoods Sporting Journal, readers expressed overwhelming opposition to the introduction of wolves to Maine.

According to Nickerson, his recommendation that the Gray Wolf be downlisted in Maine from endangered to threatened isn't likely to be acted upon until after the January workshop on wolf recovery. Nickerson says that placing the Gray Wolf on the threatened list gives USFWS and MDIF&W management latitude not otherwise available.

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