Shelburne Wolf

Thursday, March 06, 2008

It should come as no shock that the ”apparent” wolf shot in Shelburne last fall was confirmed by DNA analysis to be a wild Eastern gray or timber wolf, the likes of which has reportedly been seen many times in recent years but not killed here in Franklin County for more than a century.

Wolves were once here. That we know for sure. A cursory check of old town records will prove that. Be it Greenfield and Deerfield, Buckland, Shelburne and Colrain, Conway, Ashfield and Whately, you name it, any town in Franklin County, and you’ll find lists of bounties paid to citizens who killed wolves and wildcats alike. In the early days there was a concerted effort throughout New England to eliminate all large predators capable of killing livestock and, heaven forbid, people. Back then, wolves and wildcats were public enemy No. 1. Bounties encouraged cooperation from the best woodsmen as well as farmers, and cooperate they did, driving the beasts they didn’t kill to places where no one else wanted to live. That organized effort led to the extirpation of wolves and wildcats before the 20th century.

Bounties and persecution were not the only factors that led to the beasts’ demise. The major factor that wiped them from our landscape was the deforestation of New England and most of the Northeast. Following more than two centuries of settlement and back-breaking toil, New Englanders had replaced primeval forest with open land bordered by the same aristocratic hardwoods that lined roadways. Other than that it was mostly open country. Sure, landowners still kept woodlots, which provided cordwood and lumber, but there was less demand for wood fuel with the arrival of coal stoves, and by the third quarter of the 19th century, 85 percent of New England and 75 percent of New York was clear-cut, leaving our large, most dangerous predators nowhere to hide and no reason to stay. That’s why they fled to the Northeast’s most remote mountain wilderness, and that’s why, by the 20th century, they had been pushed above our northern border and into Canada, where a reproductive wolf population still thrives.

Well, let’s just say the times they are a changin’. Forests have now reclaimed much of New England and, if you believe witnesses with no reason to fib, the wolves and wildcats appear to be returning, along with moose and deer, bears and lynxes and many other species that grew scarce when the habitat couldn’t support them. Out of this transition also came a new species called Eastern coyote, known in the vernacular as ”brush wolves” and believed by some to be an Eastern wolf/Western coyote hybrid spawned in remote Great Lakes territory.

When coyotes first showed their heads on the back 40 during the late 1950s, they were called ”coy-dogs” by confused hilltowners trying to explain the presence of a new canid resident. Believed to be German shepherd-type dogs gone wild, or maybe a cross between such wild dogs and coyotes, even the experts went along with the wild-dog theory for a spell. But then it became apparent that a new beast had been borne to the Northeast, Today they’re everywhere, often boldly feasting in urban dumpsters.

Consider the re-emergence of moose in our woodlands, another example of an indigenous species that’s returned with the forests. When Moose first started appearing locally it was front-page news and they were said to be confused by an insidious brain parasite, sort of lost in space, clear out of their minds. But that diagnosis, although valid in some instances, isn’t what brought moose back to their historic range. No. It was reforestation, the return of suitable habitat. So now we now have a resident, reproductive moose population living among us.

Expect more of this wildlife expansion to develop; more wolves, more moose, more fishers, more bears, more of everything the forested habitat can support. That means wild wolves, not released exotic pets; and don’t be surprised when, like in the Midwest and Florida before us, our wildcats return as well. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about: the ones with the long tails, the big teeth and the blood-curdling screams resident whack-jobs have reported seeing and/or hearing in recent years.

Then we’ll know for sure that those sightings and eerie sounds described by honest citizens weren’t LSD flashbacks after all.

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