Wolves Return: Are we really hearing the howls of new packs in Vermont after decades of silence?

According to a recent report by the Wolf Conservation Center, the wolves that were once indigenous to New England and believed to be extinct are making a comeback.

During the last three centuries, much of the wolves’ wilderness habitat had disappeared due to the massive influx of European settlers converting forest lands into farmland. Wolves were perceived to be a great threat not only to livestock, but also to humans, in spite of the fact that wolves rarely attack humans and, by most accounts, go well out of their way to avoid human contact.

According to experts, wolves were virtually eradicated throughout New England by the middle of the 19th century. As the Wolf Conservation Center notes, the sound of wolf howls could be heard in the mountains throughout the Northeast for centuries even as late as the early 20th century. But extermination policies encouraged the killing of not only wolves, but all forms of wild canids, including coyotes.

In spite of the widespread systematic efforts driven by many farmers, more modern scientifically-informed understandings of wolf populations reveals that wolves posed very little threat to livestock and virtually no threat to humans whatsoever. Education efforts have since generated initiatives to help revive the dwindling wolf packs which may explain the growing number of wolf and coy-wolf sightings throughout northern New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.

According to the recent report published by the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), wolves are now making more consistent appearance throughout the Northeastern United States all the way to Maine where wolves had long been thought to be extinct. The WCC also provides a list of confirmed wolf discoveries and sightings:

  • In September 1993, a gray wolf was shot and killed near Moosehead Lake in Maine. Later DNA analysis confirmed that the animal was a wolf.
  • In 2005, canid scat was collected near Rangeley, Maine, that was analyzed and identified as consistent with gray wolf DNA.
  • On October 1, 2006, a hunter shot and killed a wolf in North Troy, Vermont.   Although the hunter asserted that he thought he was shooting at a coyote, an investigation by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department identified it as a gray wolf.

In addition to these sightings, there has been a host of other similar reports, mostly attributed to wolf-hybrids like the coy-dog or coy-wolf, and many more that are likely going unrecorded. As the WCC notes, “Given the large swaths of uninhabited forestland in Maine and in the Northeast as a whole, it is likely that these documented wolf killings and sightings represent only a fraction of the wolves actually present in the Northeast.  For every chance encounter listed above, there is likely an additional number of wolves that are present but remain undocumented.”

               While many applaud conservation efforts to restore Vermont’s lost wolf-population others are less enthusiastic citing the same concerns that many farmers held during previous periods when the native wolf population was aggressively hunted. In Franklin County, some residents claim that the wolf population has presented itself for quite some time, but that official state reports have downplayed these sightings claiming that numbers are undercounted so not to scare ski tourists. However, as more and more wolf and canid sightings continue to appear online, Vermont public officials seem more willing to embrace the wolves’ return in recent years. In fact, the Vermont Legislative Research Shop working with the University of Vermont published a report titled “Introduction of Wolves to Vermont” in which the authors describe both the ecological and economic benefit of a thriving wolf population as far back as April, 2000. More recently, a 2018 report published by Vermont Fish and Wildlife states:

The Department believes that both predator and prey species are vital components of a healthy ecosystem. Deer and other prey evolved with predators and as such, we neither regard predators as undesirable, nor do we view them as a significant threat to healthy game populations. In fact, it is a widely accepted truth among wildlife professionals that predators often help to maintain prey populations at levels that are in balance with their habitat. In an effort to foster broader public understanding and acceptance of the coyote and other predators, the Department has had a long history of working to dispel old myths surrounding the species and promoting the role and value of coyotes in our landscape.

Although the report specifically focuses on coyotes, which are far more common in Vermont, the case for the reintroduction of wolves echoes the same logic.

So, while it may be thrilling to imagine those rare lone wolf howls echoing through the mountains to be werewolves of ancient folklore, in all probability, the sounds being captured on digital devices today are more than likely the voices of Vermont’s tiny but resilient wolf population.