Wild in the Streets
Moose wander through downtown Portland. Fishers terrorize the cats of York village. Beavers chew up the trees in a Westbrook park. It's a jungle out there, and not just in the deep woods. Maine's cities and suburbs may not have lions and tigers, but there was a bear in North Deering earlier this year.
These days a coyote trotting down Brighton Avenue in Portland in broad daylight and deer chowing down on expensive shrubbery in Kennebunkport just aren't so unusual anymore. As development penetrates deeper into the countryside and hunting and trapping decline, a good many Maine residents are looking out the kitchen window and seeing more than their neighbor's pet cat in the backyard.
"These days you find more raccoons in Portland than out in the country," says David Sparks [Down East, May 2005], who operates a nuisance animal control business in Windham. "What's happening is that people are moving into wildlife habitat and the wildlife has two choices: adapt or disappear. And in Maine, a lot of wildlife is adapting."
Name just about any animal in a Maine bestiary and chances are excellent it lives in the sprawling residential subdivisions and satellite communities of southern and central Maine. "Suburbs are perfect habitat, especially in towns with large minimum lot sizes," Sparks adds.
"Deer adapt very well to fragmentation of the countryside because they're an edge species that lives in the zone between forest and open space," explains Eugene Dumont, supervisor of wildlife management at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W). "When you have development in rural areas, you're creating pretty good edge habitat. Coyotes are generalists that can eat almost anything and live almost anywhere, and they're doing very well in developed areas."
Even moose, which once limited their range to northern Maine, have spread so far south and in such numbers that the IF&W is holding hearings this autumn on expanding the moose hunt to western Cumberland and southern Androscoggin counties. If approved, the only areas statewide closed to moose hunting will be along the coast.
"People are surprised to discover that moose don't need remote swamps and deep woods to survive," observes Karen Morris, a veteran IF&W wildlife biologist. "You'll find them in fairly heavily forested areas because it's shady and cool, but there are parts of Portland that meet those criteria. In fact, suburban yards have a fair amount of shrubs and small trees that are wonderful moose browse."
Morris is familiar with the incident in late June when two moose began strolling through Portland on the same day, probably driven out of the woods by insects. A yearling near Back Cove was herded back into the forest, but the other one got as far as Munjoy Hill before it was hit by a truck. Wildlife officials had to put it down.
The celebrity factor both protects and threatens moose. Unlike, say, a coyote stalking Missy the toy poodle or a beaver gnawing on those expensive Japanese silver birches, the sight of a moose sends people running for their cameras instead of demanding its destruction. "When a moose gets into town, people gather in a great herd and the moose ends up running," Morris explains. "It gets stressed and overheated, and it's difficult to get one out and have it live. If people just leave moose alone, they'll usually wander back into the woods on their own."
Morris says there is no good estimate for the moose population in southern Maine. "We don't have any really good census work down there," she explains.
"Here in Wells I have a cow moose and her calf right behind my house this year," notes Dana Johnson, who bills himself as the "creature catcher of York County." Johnson catches and moves nuisance animals in spring, summer, and fall, but in winter he's a trapper who hunts beavers, ermine, and other animals for their fur. "The animals own the land," observes Johnson. "People are just settin' on it for a spell."
Johnson says the Maine Turnpike has created dual ecosystems in his part of the state. On the east side, along the coast, he sees more deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels. On the west side he finds more moose and bears, and "the deer are larger," he notes. "They're kind of stunted on the ocean side."
That doesn't mean moose and other animals don't try to migrate toward the ocean, with often unfortunate results. On a single night in June 2004 the turnpike recorded separate moose-car collisions in Biddeford, Saco, Falmouth, and Cumberland. And Johnson's calls recently included a report of a bear in the center of Wells.
Beavers don't seem to care where they are, and Johnson says they're generating more nuisance calls all the time. The state as a whole has upwards of forty thousand beaver by some estimates, and Johnson says he sometimes thinks most of them live south of Portland.
"I move a lot of them in late summer and fall," he explains. "That's when they really start cutting trees to get ready for winter. Landowners notice when all of a sudden they see a view they never saw before because their trees are gone." He recalls a homeowner on Gerrish Island in Kittery who came back from a weekend away to find the big poplar tree in his backyard gone, along with the bird feeders that hung from its branches. Only a tooth-marked stump remained.
"I live on the Presumpscot River here in Windham," David Sparks notes, "and ten years ago I never saw beavers. Now they're all over the place. In Westbrook they're cutting down a lot of trees in the parks. I've only caught two of those so far."
Beavers have benefited from a drastic drop in the number of trappers in Maine, due mostly to lack of interest and low fur prices. Johnson believes that trapping is regaining popularity, especially among retirees who may remember childhood muskrat trapping fondly. But even he estimates that less than a quarter of the people he teaches in state-mandated trappers classes actually take up trapping on a regular basis. "And even then, most trappers only run their lines along roads," he adds. "You walk a half mile or so up any brook around here and you'll find a beaver lodge. But no one wants to hike or snowshoe in that far to check his traps anymore."
That may change if last year's improvement in fur prices continues. Prime beaver pelts fetched twenty-eight to thirty dollars last winter, Johnson reports, and ermine pelts that had brought no more than $3.50 were selling for nineteen dollars each.
In fact, suburbs and cities are sanctuaries for wildlife. Although municipalities cannot ban hunting, they can and do pass firearms discharge ordinances that prohibit or severely limit rifle and shotgun use. And state law prohibits discharging a firearm within a hundred yards of a dwelling. Cape Elizabeth is the poster child for the ravages that a burgeoning deer population can cause after that city banned firearms discharges. Property damage and deer-vehicle collisions soared there as the deer herd grew. And both Peaks Island and Drakes Island have hired sharpshooters in the past to reduce or eliminate deer herds.
"Suburbs are pretty good habitat for a lot of animals," Sparks adds. "They can live in the crawl spaces under sheds and garages. The lawns alone provide pretty good food sources, and bird feeders are a bonanza for more than just birds. And it's not like you can step out the back door with a shotgun if there's a raccoon in the trash can."
The rise in deer, beaver, raccoon, and other wildlife populations also means that the species that prey on them eventually follow along. "The predators are expanding into areas we've never seen them before," Sparks explains, recalling that he trapped a bear in the middle of Westbrook a few years ago.
Coyotes moving across the turnpike have pushed foxes closer to the ocean. Johnson was called in this summer to trap foxes that had moved onto Ogunquit Beach and were plundering endangered piping plover nests for eggs. Both he and Sparks say predators are tough to trap. "People don't like coyotes, but they may have to get used to them," Sparks says.
Game warden Jason Luce, whose territory includes most of southern Maine, says coyotes have much better food sources and higher survival rates in the cities and suburbs than they do in undeveloped forestland. "I've never seen an unhealthy coyote in Portland," he notes.
Luce says many residents have a mistaken view of the region. "Maine is such a rural state, and many folks think Portland is the big city, but in reality it's not," he offers. "There are some pretty large wooded areas in the city, and even more out in the suburbs and countryside. People think they're in the city and animals shouldn't be there. But they are."
Both Johnson and Sparks give public demonstrations and programs about wildlife in Maine. For Sparks, educational programs now account for a major part of his business, and he gives up to three hundred of them a year. Both say that the wave of newcomers that has washed through southern Maine in the past two decades has changed the public perception of wildlife and how animals should be treated.
"It amazes me how little people know about wildlife anymore," Johnson says. "We take mounts [stuffed animals] to shows as exhibits of local wildlife, and people will ask us if the possums are meerkats, because that's what they see on the Discovery Channel."
Johnson says many newcomers are moving from urban areas where they don't see wildlife and haven't been educated about it. "A substantial portion of the population doesn't understand wildlife and doesn't know what they're looking at when they see it," he observes. "Some of them can't even identify a raccoon. I've had dozens of calls from people who say they have a badger [which isn't found in Maine], and it's a porcupine. A woman called a few weeks ago and said she had an eagle in her backyard with a broken wing. I went over, and it was a seagull."
Luce says he spends considerable time educating people on how to get along with wildlife, such as keeping their pet cats (a favorite coyote snack food) indoors and bringing in their bird feeders each evening to avoid attracting skunks and bears. "Basically these animals are here to stay," he says. "They were here first."