State Elk and Wolf Management Under Review
Department of Fish and Wildlife Shows Cards to Delist Wolf
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently released its draft Wolf Conservation Plan, a document which will shape the way the Department approaches wolf recovery in California. The Plan may impact protections afforded to the grey wolf under the state and federal endangered species acts.
While the Plan emphasizes nonlethal management strategies in the short term, EPIC is concerned that the Plan will ultimately result in loosened protections and wolf hunts. In the Plan, the Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates that it will seek to “delist” or remove protections from the endangered species act if the state reaches nine packs, consisting of just 50 to 75 wolves. The Plan does not seek to ground this number in science. Why? Because this number can’t be justified. The best available science shows that such a small number is too fragile to deem the species recovered.
Wolf management has traditionally focused on lethal control, killing wolves if they demonstrate predation on livestock. EPIC’s Program and Legal Coordinator, Tom Wheeler, argues that nonlethal control methods are both more humane and more effective. “Nonlethal deterrence, such as range riders, herd management techniques, and electric fences, has been proven to be effective in protecting livestock from predation.”
The Conservation Plan was spurred by the discovery of a wolf in California in 2011. The wolf, OR-7, was named “Journey” because of his long adventure to reach the Golden State. The lone wolf traveled in and out of California for four years before returning to Oregon where he established a pack near the border, the Rogue Pack. While OR-7 moved on, California recently received its first permanent pack. On August 9, 2015, a game camera caught the first definitive proof: five pups and two adults, frolicking together. The wolves, named the Shasta Pack after nearby Mount Shasta, now call California home. Another wolf, OR-25, originated from the same pack as OR-7 and has been traveling between Modoc County and southern Oregon this winter.
Is Elk Hunting Jeopardizing Local Roosevelt Elk?
That’s the question being raised by EPIC in comments to the Fish and Game Commission. Our local Roosevelt elk population—the car-stopping attraction near Highway 101 in Humboldt and Del Norte counties—is one of the most significant populations in relation to its larger subspecies for two reasons: its history and its future.
In regard to its history, this Roosevelt elk population is our last vestige of the past. By 1925, our local population was the only Roosevelt population left in California; the rest were hunted to oblivion. Through a combination of natural expansion of populations in Oregon and forced relocation, Roosevelt elk have spread further in the state. But this expansion also threatens the genetic uniqueness of the subspecies.
Ill-conceived past management decisions have resulted in the hybridization of Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk. This is not unique to California. Across the West Coast, many if not most populations of Roosevelt elk interbreed with Rocky Mountain elk, putting the subspecies at risk. There are few populations, including those in coastal Del Norte and Humboldt counties included, that are genetically “pure.”
For this reason, our Roosevelt population is significant to the larger subspecies for the future. Elk management decisions should reflect this uniqueness and prioritize its preservation. The state wants to allow approximately 16% of the total Humboldt and Del Norte populations, or 255 total elk, to be removed in the 2016 hunting seasons. However, the environmental review performed by the Department does not focus on the impacts to our specific population, instead concluding that the hunt will not harm genetics statewide—even though most other Roosevelt elk in the state have hybridized with Rocky Mountain elk.
Elk recovery and wolf recovery are also, unsurprisingly, intrinsically linked. That’s how ecosystems work. Elk are wolves’ top choice of prey but as the wolf plan points out, when elk are not available wolves will switch to hunting “deer and other large herbivores”—including livestock. Without sufficient elk, wolves will broaden their range, increasing the potential for conflicts with humans and livestock. The elk hunting plan and the state’s desire to prevent or reduce livestock predation therefore seems to be at odds with each other.
For more information on elk hunting and other wildlife issues, including advocacy for wolf recovery in California, please visit www.wildcalifornia.org.