March 18, 2010

Are there any wolves in Maine?

BY CHARLIE BOYLE

BY CHARLIE BOYLE

Special to the Morning Sentinel

Are there wolves living in the wild in the Maine North Woods? Laura Sebastianelli doesn't know for sure, but she's throwing herself into the search.

And she's encouraging others to join in.

Sebastianelli, a Northport naturalist and adult-program director with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is organizing a citizen-science initiative, the Wolf Inquiry Project, to look into the potential repopulation of wolves in Maine.

Project participants soon will conduct "howling surveys" in the Maine woods, with the ultimate hope being to lure any gray wolves from hiding.

"There have been eight confirmed wolves in the Northeast" in recent years, the Waldo County resident said in a phone interview, en route to Reno, Nev., but the animals all have been "shot dead."

"Wouldn't it be great to be more proactive" with the species than that, Sebastianelli asked.

Her group has teamed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine to look for wolves, which are a federally protected species.

Finding one could be a challenge.

Walter Jakubas, a wildlife biologist and leader of the mammal group at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says there are no gray wolves living or roaming across Maine.

That isn't stopping Sebastianelli. Her first training session for volunteer howlers will be held June 28 at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Old Town. Volunteers will be trained to conduct surveys in which the howl of a wolf is imitated and responses are documented.

Both Sebastianelli and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine say the chance of finding wolves in the wild is a longshot, but they defend the importance of the project.

There is "a needle in the haystack aspect of it," said Daryl Dejoy, executive director of the Wildlife Alliance, but he emphasized the importance of the inquiry behind it.

"It's the issue of, if you're not looking, how are you going to find anything?"

Sebastianelli agrees.

"It's meant to look at the questions rather than the answers."

Encouraged by a resurgence of gray wolves in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is climatologically similar to Maine, Maine wildlife experts believe wolves could make a comeback here, she said.

"If we were to see a biological recovery (of the wolf population), it would probably happen sometime in the next few years because the biological conditions (are) right," said Sebastianelli.

With grants from Call of the Wild Environmental Services and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, the Wolf Inquiry Project hopes to train a dozen volunteer researchers to search for wolves in specific but unnamed areas, Sebastianelli said. Researchers will head into the field in pairs.

Sebastianelli points out the rewarding experience that awaits volunteer researchers, whether they find wolves or not.

"We may not hear wolves," she said, "but it's just as exciting to have a coyote respond to you. It's a very powerful experience, and it's great fun."

The search for wolves in the wilds of Maine is the main mission of the Wolf Inquiry Project, but not its only one. Sebastianelli hopes to expose citizens to the rewarding experience of field research.

Animal tracking "has been my passion for a number of years," she said, "and I'd love to share that with other people and hope they can have these experiences on their own."

For details about the Wolf Inquiry Project, go online to www.wildlifealliancemaine.org

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