Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Gray wolves gaining ground up north

ERROL, N.H. — Somewhere out there, a Canis lupus roams. The North Woods harbor moose and coyote, bobcat and lynx, and thousands of deer. And, quite likely, a handful of North America's great predator, the gray wolf.

"I saw him right there, standing broadside with that massive cranium," said Bob Lord, who jogged down this logging road last fall and came face to face with a wolf. "Oh, my God, what a beauty."

Extirpated by man more than a century ago in every corner of New England, the gray wolf (aka Canis lupus) seems on the verge of re-establishing a toehold in the 20 million-acre North Woods, a forest that extends from northern Maine to New Hampshire and Vermont and New York. Lone wolves appear to be wandering down from Quebec, reconnoitering these lands and disappearing again. No one knows when these wolves will find a mate.

But wildlife biologists say there is no reason that a wolf pack could not form here, perhaps very soon.

"When I look at the northern woods of Maine and New Hampshire and see the abundant moose and white-tail deer, it's like a buffet for the wolves," said Douglas W. Smith, a National Park Service biologist and chief of Yellowstone's Gray Wolf Restoration Project. "It's the next best place for the wolf to return."

Within the past few years, "there have been a handful of sightings and there also have been two or three wolf-like animals shot in Maine," said Jody Jones, a wildlife biologist with Maine Audubon.

Wolves can be hard to identify genetically because of natural variations and interbreeding with coyotes.

The wolves here now are pioneers, Jones said, but the settlers will follow. "They travel tremendous distances, hundreds of miles over some very difficult terrain. I think it's definitely possible that at some point, Maine will have its first wolf pack. The question is how quickly."

The return of the wolf to New England would cap a natural repopulation of the northern woods striking in its breadth and depth. A century ago, these forests stood nearly denuded of large mammals.

Now, thousands of moose roam these woods and marshes, and the lynx has crept back in.

No one has charted the wolf's precise path south into New England. Thousands of wolves reside in northern Quebec, in the Laurentian Mountains and the forests that stretch north.

Wolves run 75 to 90 pounds and live in packs of about six, New England wildlife biologists say. Each pack is run by an alpha male and female. They brook no challenge. Young wolves - known as dispersers - wander off. A few cross the St. Lawrence River, probably on winter ice.

From there, the wolves wander south into the hills of southern Quebec. At least one pack seems to have formed there.

It is not known how many wolves take the next step and walk into Maine and New Hampshire, although they can roam 500 miles. In 2001, a hunter mistakenly killed a wolf in the Adirondacks, and a trapper caught one near Bangor, Maine, in 1996.

Reliable sightings have grown exponentially.

"Everyone assumed they couldn't get across the St. Lawrence - well, they did," said Peggy Struhsacker, wolf team leader for the National Wildlife Federation.

Struhsacker is the Sherlock Holmes of the Canis lupus crowd. She is carefully skeptical. "Some appear to walk through," she said as she stood in that forest outside Errol, N.H. "What we don't know is if a female has met a male and set up shop."

Wildlife advocacy groups such as Maine Audubon are challenging the federal government's policy on wolves in the Northeast. The government is proposing to take the gray wolf off the Endangered Species List because it has re-established itself in the Great Lakes region, while advocates want protections to remain in the Northeast.

Staff Writer John Richardson contributed to this story

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