Going Back to Cali

Gray wolves have returned to the Golden State after a nearly century-long absence.

Courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife released camera-trap photographs yesterday of five gray wolf pups and their presumed parents in the state’s northern region. Baby animal photos are always breaking news to me, but this new family has indisputable significance: It’s California’s first documented wolf pack in nearly 100 years.

Motion-triggered cameras first captured a lone lobo in Siskiyou County back in May and July. Suspecting it was a wolf dispersing south from a pack in Oregon, biologists set up additional candid canid cams nearby. They were rewarded with shots of six additional wolves, including a litter of black-and-brown splotched pups appearing to be a few months old. Officials named the group the Shasta Pack.

“This news is exciting for California,” said CDFW director Charlton Bonham in a press release. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state, and it appears now is the time."

Historically, California’s gray wolves lived in the Sierra Nevadas, the southern Cascades, the Modoc Plateau, and the Klamath Mountains. But predator-control programs, combined with habitat loss and loss of prey to hunters, extirpated the population by the mid-1920s. The much-maligned carnivore suffered similar fates across much of the Lower 48, leading to its federally endangered status in 1978.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains in 1995, and the population has been expanding ever since in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and, more recently, Washington and Oregon. A wolf known as OR-7 made headlines in 2011 when he crossed the Oregon-California border in search of a mate, making him the first confirmed member of his species to roam the Golden State since 1924.

OR-7 eventually wandered back to his roots in Oregon, where he’s now the alpha male of the Rogue Pack. Inspired by OR-7’s sojourn, CDFW has been working on a wolf-management plan for the state for more than two years. But the Shasta Pack showed up fashionably early for this party—a draft of the plan is due out in the next couple of months, when it will be open to comments from the public.

“Wolves, more than any other species I have been involved with, evoke amplified responses from the public,” says Karen Kovacs, wildlife program manager at CDFW. That sensitivity, thanks in part to centuries of bad PR, played into the state’s decision to jump-start conversations about the predators’ return before it actually happened. In June 2014, the California Fish & Game Commission listed the gray wolf under the state’s Endangered Species Act, providing it with increased protections.

Wolves are apex predators that help maintain healthy ecosystems, but this same top-of-the-food-chain status concerns cattle ranchers. Cattle, however, are far from being a wolf’s go-to lunch, turning to livestock only occasionally if the opportunity arises.

Conservationists hope the management plan, which is being updated in light of the Shasta Pack’s debut, will place particular focus on nonlethal methods for minimizing conflicts between wolves and livestock.

“In many places across the country, there’s a call to just shoot a wolf as soon as you see it threatening livestock, and that’s certainly not needed,” says NRDC attorney Damon Nagami (disclosure), who, along with other stakeholders such as farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen, weighed in on the management plan. Last year, 162 wolves were killed across Western states for attacking livestock. But recent research has found that shooting wolves to protect sheep and cows can actually backfire, leading to more livestock losses. And, says Nagami, “There are plenty of nonlethal methods that have been proven effective.”

Such strategies, including range riders, electric fencing, and guard dogs, are being tried by some conservation-minded ranchers across the West. “An important piece of the wolf puzzle is recognizing the huge area of common ground that most of us share—that it’s in everyone’s best interest to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock,” says Zack Strong, a wildlife advocate at NRDC who’s been helping ranchers implement nonlethal predator-control methods. He now hopes California livestock owners will take them up, too.

To help make way for the Shasta Pack, CDFWS’s law-enforcement division is reaching out to nearby communities to let them know about their new canid neighbors and to teach them how to distinguish between wolves and coyotes. (Coyotes have fewer protections under California law.)

So will wolves thrive in the Golden State? Wildlife officials say it’s difficult to say. Even though the area is part of the gray wolf’s native range, urbanization, development, and population growth have changed the habitat significantly since wolves were last there—90 years ago. CDFW hopes to outfit the Shasta Pack with radio collars at some point to keep tabs on how they’re settling in.

“Wolves are back in California now, and that’s exciting news,” said Matt Baum of USFWS. “Hopefully this is a new chapter where we can work to ensure their safety.”

Welcome home, Shasta Pack. We hope you’re here to stay.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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