California Beckons the Gray Wolf—but Can’t Guarantee a Safe Journey There
The future of wolves in the West depends on collaborative cross-border commitments to protecting this icon of the wild.
This year, a lone gray wolf loped through California’s Tahoe National Forest and as far south as Interstate 80. She dared travel deeper into the Southwest than any wolf since the 1900s, by which point wolves had been hunted to near extinction in the Golden State.
It wasn’t the first time the Oregon native, formally named OR-54 by the wildlife biologists who radio-collared her in 2017, had crossed state lines. Since January 2018 she has made four trips into California, traversing 6,000 miles of challenging terrain. And given the stakes, OR-54 has been lucky—in part because California now prides itself on being one of the states most friendly to wolf recovery.
OR-54 has been following a crisscross path over state lines similar to that of her presumed father, OR-7, aka Journey. In 2011, he meandered out of the Cascades in Oregon and became the first wolf known to step foot in California after almost a century of eradication.
Scientists now know wolves play essential roles as top predators—in Yellowstone National Park, for example, some studies show they’ve kept the elk population in check, which in turn helps restore healthy stands of trees to the landscape. Their hunting prowess has also provided other carnivore species in Yellowstone (scavengers such as coyotes, eagles, and bears) with a more dependable food source in the carrion they leave behind.
Katie Umekubo, a senior attorney and advocate for public lands and wildlife at NRDC, notes that these ripple effects demonstrate why it’s so important to protect keystone species like wolves. “As the U.N.’s recent biodiversity report underscored, we must fight harder than ever against threats to healthy ecosystems and instead lay the groundwork for thriving and resilient wildlife populations,” she says. “There is no time to waste—apex predators like wolves are critical to ecosystem balance and our survival.”
California’s gray wolves are just beginning to reestablish a population, thanks in part to the protections they’ve been granted by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and to additional safeguards offered by state agencies and conservation groups. But in keeping with its attacks on public lands and clean air and water safeguards, the Trump administration has threatened to kick wolves off the endangered list.
In April the California Fish and Game Commission voted to resist the administration’s plan to cut federal protections for wolves. But the state can’t go it alone. Helping these wide-ranging carnivores to fully recover will require concerted efforts on the part of all states in the Lower 48 inhabited by wolves or crossed by so-called dispersers—typically younger animals that leave their packs and travel long distances in search of new territories or mates.
“Ideally wolves should be able to move freely from states where they have a higher population, like Idaho, and disperse naturally up and down the West Coast,” says Rebecca White of the Pacific Wolf Coalition. The coalition has drawn together 34 conservation organizations (including both large national organizations like NRDC and local groups such as Cascadia Wildlands) to support wolves as they repopulate the Pacific West. “But if they have to run the gauntlet of wolf-hunting states,” White adds, “they may never make it as far as California.”
In addition to this challenge, Umekubo notes that a plethora of misinformation gives wolves a bad rap. This includes an overstatement of the effect of wolf predation on livestock operations. (In fact, even the inflated government data produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in 2015, wolves killed only 0.01 percent of the U.S. sheep inventory and 0.009 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory.) Nevertheless, the reputation of these carnivores has led to ample fear and concern among people sharing their turf with wolves—and in turn, misguided policies that emphasize lethal predator control measures to protect against livestock losses. And that, Umekubo says, “fits into the anti-wildlife and anti-science agenda of this administration.”
In Washington State, conservation groups, ranchers, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have been engaged in a legal battle concerning the WDFW’s wolf policy. The agency recently issued kill orders for members of the Togo pack in an attempt to control cattle losses in the state’s northeast corner. The WDFW counts only some 122 wolves as current residents; according to conservation groups, it has killed 18 and eliminated three entire packs since 2012.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission recently moved closer to approving public hunting as a tool for wolf management in the eastern part of the state. State-level policies like these could inhibit further wolf expansion and recovery if the Trump administration succeeds in revoking federal ESA listing status for the animals.
Such a move would certainly make California’s resolution to grow its own gray wolf population much harder to achieve—after all, wolves travel without regard for state borders. In light of that fact, the Pacific Wolf Coalition has been working to retain federal endangered species protections. At the same time, many of its members, including NRDC, have partnered with government agencies, private landowners, and various environmental groups to set up turbo fladry, or electric fencing, to help deter wolves and other predators from taking livestock.
White notes that “the vast majority of the citizenry of our three states understands that wolves benefit our landscapes and ecosystems and have a rightful place here.” That sentiment was clear in April, when community members came together in Santa Monica at a wolf rally. Cars drove by on Main Street honking in support of protesters who stood outside Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium waving signs that read “Wolves = healthy ecosystems” and “The call of the wild may soon be silenced.” The gathering sought to encourage the California Fish and Game Commission to oppose the Trump administration’s ESA threat.
“It was amazing being around such passionate wildlife advocates, and you could just see how much they all personally cared about ensuring protections for the wolves that they love,” says Dani Garcia, an NRDC program assistant who attended the rally.
Earlier this month, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) convened a meeting of the Wolf Stakeholder Working Group, of which NRDC is a member. Scientists from CDFW reported that the single pack residing in the state—numbering about eight animals—traveled over a larger area this winter compared to last. “There is more work to be done, but the most exciting and hopeful takeaway for me was seeing the data tracking wolves’ movement and expansion into California,” says Umekubo. “The Lassen Pack is growing and appears to be here to stay.”
Kent Laudon, a wolf specialist with CDFW who is based in Redding, California, confirms that there are new pups in the pack, the offspring of a sibling of OR-54 and a female that has made Lassen County her breeding territory. “We still don’t know how many there are; we’ve got cameras out and we think there are at least three,” he says.
It’s the third litter Laudon and his team have recorded this year alone, he says. Some of those pups have died, while others have dispersed. They’re now keeping a close watch over where the Lassen Pack is moving. “We’re going to try and collar one or two more wolves in the pack now, and then we’ll have better ideas on where they are headed and see what’s happening with other wolves on the landscape.” But the work is not easy. In late June, the team was tracking the wolves moving through “forested areas with mountain meadows,” Laudon noted. True to these intrepid creatures’ ranging habits, “it’s a tough place to get to right now.”
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