A biologist from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found the dead deer in the middle of a small meadow. There were multiple faint wolf tracks in the dirt. It was clear the deer had been taken by wolves. But how many wolves were out there? Was this a lone wolf, a pair or a new wolf pack? The biologist moved to the edge of the meadow and attached a motion-sensored game camera to a nearby tree.
On August 9, 2015, the shutter clicked: five pups and two adults, frolicking together. The wolves, named the Shasta Pack after nearby Mount Shasta, now call California home. All dark in color, the alpha male and female likely emigrated from Southern Oregon. Their pups were probably born in California, sometime around April, and now weigh a healthy 40 pounds or so.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife wants to know more. Biologists have collected wolf scat to test. The Department also intends to put a GPS collar on one of the adults to monitor their location.
Wolves were missing from the state for nearly one-hundred years; the last wolf recorded in California was killed in 1924. In 2011, a lone male wolf, OR-7 or “Journey,” crossed the Oregon/California border. After nearly a year and a half of looking for a mate, OR-7 returned back to Oregon, visited California briefly on several occasions over the next two years, then found a mate in Oregon and established a pack near the border,
the Rogue Pack.
Laying Out the Red Carpet
Conservation and wildlife advocate groups have been hard at work to ensure wolves were welcome back in California. Step one was getting adequate protections in place. While the gray wolf has long been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted to remove protections, arguing that wolves had recovered “enough.” Multiple lawsuits have slowed or stopped the Service’s attempts to remove protections, but the Service seems intent on removing the gray wolf from the
Endangered Species Act.
In the face of unclear federal protections, local and national environmental groups knew they needed a backup plan. In early 2012, shortly after the lone wolf OR-7 crossed the Oregon/California border, environmental groups petitioned the State to protect gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act, or CESA, a state law modeled after the federal Act. In 2014, the State moved to protect gray wolves. This was not without controversy or strife. The Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that the Fish and Game Commission not protect the species under CESA, but rather adopt other rules which would offer returning wolves some protections. This was not sufficient, and wolf advocates continued to push the Commission to adopt full protections under CESA. Thanks to the legal and scientific arguments presented to the Commission by the four petitioning organizations, and to the thousands of public comments in favor of wolf protections, the Commission listened and in 2014 voted to give the gray wolf the fullest protections under CESA.
The Department also began to craft a “wolf management plan.” This plan is intended to guide how the Department’ manages wolves in cases of potential conflicts between wolves and humans, such as conflicts with livestock. Conservation voices have offered feedback to the Department and a draft version of the plan is expected to be released for public comment by the end of this year.
Kimberly Baker, of the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Klamath Forest Alliance, says that the management plan is concerned primarily with human/wolf interactions. “We are anticipating the release of the Plan to see if adequate protections are in place for a viable population in California and that non-lethal measures for ‘managing’ wolves are given the highest priority.”
The Work Has Just Begun
Getting wolves back to California was the easy part—we really just had to cross our fingers and wait. The real work protecting wolves has just begun. Wolves are cursed with infamously bad PR. Before wolves are considered safe, wolf advocates will need to change the hearts and minds of ranchers and other folks who are afraid of the big bad wolf.
“We lost wolves in California because we killed them all, due to fear for our safety or the safety of livestock, and due to ignorance of the essential role wolves play in keeping nature healthy and wild,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The fact is, wolves can live wherever people will tolerate them. To get to that place of coexistence will require a great deal of public education. That work will take a long time, but we are up for it.”