The Rewilding of Cape Ann


I'M NO DANIEL BOONE, but I’ve paid enough attention to animal tracks over the years to recognize cat tracks when I see them.  The tracks I saw in the wet sand of the Dunes at Castle Neck one chilly morning last December could only come from one critter: a bobcat.  I learned later that a deer hunter with permission from the Trustees of Reservations to hunt in the dunes had photographed the bobcat.

Over the last few decades, this stealthy feline has gradually expanded its range eastward.  Unless someone can prove me wrong (and I’d be happy to be wrong!), that hunter documented the farthest east sighting of a bobcat in Massachusetts this century.  We haven’t yet seen a bobcat in Essex or Manchester, but most naturalists believe we soon will.  After all, we have perfect habitat for this mostly nocturnal member of the lynx family.

Holy Bobcat! This giant feline was caught last week by a New Hampshire trail cam. (Credit: Lisa Atkinson Grose)

The bobcat is just one of several fur-bearing mammals whose range has been expanding eastward, including fishers, beavers, coyotes, and black bears.  Although the reasons differ, range expansion is also occurring with birds, such as bald eagles, ospreys, and wild turkeys, all of whom have found suitable habitat on Cape Ann.  What’s driving this trend?

Conservationists use the term “rewilding” to describe the phenomenon where habitat is restored and native flora and fauna return (or are reintroduced) to their former range. Naturalist and author George Monbiot describes rewilding as “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”  For this to occur, nature needs some help. Conservation initiatives, land trusts, and regulations are all contributing factors.  A major reason for the return of beavers, bobcats, and black bears to Eastern Massachusetts can be traced to Ballot Question One in 1996 (“Wildlife Protection Act”) when residents voted overwhelmingly to outlaw various inhumane methods of trapping fur-bearing animals.

It's hard to imagine a more oppressed and underappreciated mammal than the North American beaver.  In the 17th Century, having obliterated the population of European beavers, the French and British were delighted to find a seemingly endless supply in North America.  There was high demand in Europe for beaver pelts to make felt hats and castoreum for medicinal purposes and as an ingredient in foods and perfumes (never mind that it came from a gland between the beaver’s anus and genitalia).  Over the next two centuries, beavers were trapped and hunted to near extinction.

Beavers were effectively eradicated in MA by the 1900s. Now, the beaver population is estimated at 70,000 individuals. (Courtesy of Dan Prosser)
Beavers were effectively eradicated in MA by the 1900s. Now, the beaver population is estimated at 70,000 individuals. (Courtesy of Dan Prosser)
By the late 19th Century, there were no beavers in Massachusetts.  According to Michael Callahan, founder of the Beaver Institute  in Southampton, “the 20th Century brought increased awareness of the value of beavers and wetlands . . . beavers were reintroduced to Massachusetts and spread to areas where beavers had not been seen for hundreds of years.”

Beavers and humans are the only mammals that construct their environments to fit their own purposes.  Because of their critical role in habitat creation and restoration, beavers are considered a “keystone species.”  Dave Rimmer, wildlife biologist and Director of Land Stewardship at Greenbelt  says that beavers “create amazing habitats for a wide range of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, you name it.”  Are they a boon to biodiversity?  “Big time!”  And they are a mitigating influence on floods, wildfires, drought, and depletion of ground water.  But beavers and humans sometimes have conflicting plans.

In her recent book, Beaverland, author Leila Philip writes, “In 2019, beavers caused an estimated $500,000 of damage in Massachusetts by flooding roads, train tracks, septic systems, and agricultural land, as well as felling trees . . .” Here in Manchester, Eric Richardson, Director of Grounds at Essex County Club, told me the golf course has been flooded repeatedly from breaching of upstream beaver dams and backup from downstream dams.  In 2019, due to public health concerns, several beavers that built a dam and lodge just below the confluence of Sawmill Brook and Causeway Brook were euthanized.

Beavers are also environmental engineers on a grand scale.  There’s a beaver dam in Alberta that’s visible from space.  It’s almost 2,800 feet long, twice the span of Hoover Dam.  The dam was reported by NASA, which is using remote sensing to monitor beaver impact on climate resilience and the creation of wetlands.

Like beavers, black bears and coyotes are often considered “nuisance animals.”  By 1940, black bears were almost nonexistent in Massachusetts due to hunting and loss of habitat; there are now approximately 4,500 in the state.  The comeback of black bears corresponds to the reforestation of Massachusetts from its nadir of 20 percent forest cover in the mid-1800s to approximately 62 percent today.

Black bears love raiding birdfeeders! (Photo: Courtesy of John and Donna Betz)
Black bears love raiding birdfeeders! (Photo: Courtesy of John and Donna Betz)
Bears are a matrilineal species.  The boars (males) have no role in rearing cubs. Most of the denning of sows and cubs occurs west of I-495, but each summer, increasing numbers of boars too young to successfully compete for sows in estrus have been showing up in Eastern Massachusetts—from Arlington to Amesbury to the South Shore to Danvers last August.

Could we see a bear in Essex or Manchester?  Gloucester naturalist and author Chris Leahy says, “It’s inevitable, and it wouldn’t even surprise me to run across one in Dogtown.”  You might think the most likely place to encounter a bear is in the woods, but you’re more likely to see a bear in your backyard or raiding a dumpster.  Bears are opportunistic foragers and the people of central and western Massachusetts have had a couple of decades to learn how to co-exist with them.  The key is to eliminate anything that might lead bears to habituate to human-provided food sources, like unsecured trash and bird feeders.

With its primary predators--wolves or cougars--eradicated from the East, the coyote began expanding its range east of the Mississippi. (Photo: Lucia Hackett)
With its primary predators--wolves or cougars--eradicated from the East, the coyote began expanding its range east of the Mississippi. (Photo: Lucia …
The same goes for coyotes.  Although they aren’t native to Massachusetts, coyotes have certainly found a home here.  “They are so prevalent on our landscape now,” says Dave Rimmer. “They’re running across the salt marshes, they’re running on the beaches, they’re in the woods, they’re in your trash, they’re everywhere.”

There are two major misconceptions I often hear about coyotes.  First, they’re coming into town because of a loss of habitat.  No.  They’re coming into town because it’s part of their habitat. They find food in towns and even big cities.  The City of Chicago has a population of over 2,000 coyotes! Second, they’re overpopulated and should be culled.  No.  Coyotes can adjust their litter sizes based on the carrying capacity of their habitat.  Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, writes that one function of the yipping and howling of coyotes we hear at night “is to assess the size of the surrounding coyote population.”  Attempts to cull the coyote population elsewhere have failed.  Coyotes always find a way.

In 1856, upon noting that he could no longer find beavers at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “. . . the nobler animals have been exterminated here—the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver . . . I cannot but feel as if I live in a tamed, and . . . emasculated country.”  

I think Thoreau would be pleased to see the rewilding taking place in Eastern Massachusetts today.  After all, he also wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of man.”

Jim Behnke is a Manchester-based nature writer whose stories have appeared in On the Water, Outside, and Scientific American.  He has been a contributor to The Cricket since 2019.