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Maine Caribou Restoration Effort Ends

November 1, 1990 GMT

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) _ An effort to restore caribou to the wilds of Maine has been pronounced a failure after predators killed many of the ungainly reindeer.

The Maine Caribou Project Inc. announced Wednesday that it is abandoning its 4-year-old effort. Project officials said they doubt they can raise the money needed to transplant enough caribou to create a self-sustaining herd.

Of the 32 caribou released in Maine, 25 are confirmed dead - 12 killed by bears and coyotes. The rest are unaccounted for, but biologists believe only two or three are alive, and they apparently have lost the radio collars used to keep track of them.

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Four caribou calves also were born in the wild. Two died of unknown causes; a bear and bobcat killed the others.

Caribou once were so abundant in Maine’s north woods that a city was named after the animal. But overhunting and disease left the North American reindeer extinct in Maine more than 80 years ago.

The restoration effort, which began with a caribou roundup in a remote corner of Newfoundland, was the second since 1963.

When the lastest caribou releases were planned, project leaders’ main worry was the deadly parasite known as brainworm.

″The whole black bear thing was something none of the (biologists) considered to be a critical factor in the beginning,″ project spokesman Richard B. Anderson said.

″I think it’s possible to restore the caribou to its former range,″ he said. ″But you need a lot of animals.″

That would take more money that project leaders believe they can raise in a weakening economy.

Biologists believe they’d need 50 to 100 more caribou to succeed, but it would cost at least $300,000 to capture, transport and monitor that many animals. The project, which officially ends Dec. 31, has raised $500,000 so far.

″We have come to realize that only under an extraordinary set of circumstances would it have been possible to complete a project of this magnitude without organizational and financial support of federal or state wildlife agencies,″ project leaders said in a statement.

The project’s failure shows money ″is far better spent to conserve Maine’s endangered species today, while they still exist,″ the statement said.

Project leaders said they will share information with officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Idaho, where caribou reintroduction projects are proposed or under way.

The last caribou from a native Maine herd was spotted on mile-high Mount Katahdin in 1908.

In 1963, about two dozen caribou were released in northern Maine’s Baxter State Park. All of the animals disappeared because of poaching, disease, predators and natural dispersal, biologists believe.

In 1986, more than two dozen caribou in Newfoundland were shot with tranquilizer darts and taken by helicopter and in trucks to enclosures at the University of Maine in Orono, 1,200 miles away.

Biologists kept the ″nursery herd″ in Orono to breed young caribou for eventual releases in Maine’s wilds. Of the dozen released in Baxter park in April 1989, only one was known to have survived by the end of that year.

But project leaders discovered that caribou were more susceptible to brainworm when penned. So all 20 animals in the breeding herd were released, and plans were being made to import up to 75 more caribou from Newfoundland.

In January, however, the Baxter park’s board denied permission for a spring release. Board members criticized the way the project had been run.