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Wolves in California: Don’t Stop Believin’?

January 12, 2012

Just before New Year’s, California gained a new and significant (though likely temporary) resident: a gray wolf from Oregon crossed into the far north of California. His official name is OR7 but he has since been dubbed “Journey”. The picture above was captured by a deer hunter’s motion-activated camera. By crossing the Oreg0n-California border, Journey became the first known wild wolf in the state in over 80 years: the last was trapped in Lassen County in 1924.

I spent much of the fall working on a paper on wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain area and their protections under the Endangered Species Act so Journey’s arrival is especially significant to me. He is a descendant of wolves that were reintroduced into Wyoming and Idaho in the 1990’s. The species was extirpated across the United States by the 1930’s because of an extermination campaign waged by ranchers and government at all levels. In the 1970’s, the wolf was listed as endangered under the newly passed Endangered Species Act. Also in the 1970’s, environmentalists began arguing that reintroduction of the gray wolf was necessary to rebalance the ecosystems of Yellowstone and other wildernesses in the Northern Rockies and that it was feasible because of the large tracts of public land that exist in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Since the reintroduction of the wolf, ecosystems have become more healthy. In Yellowstone, the (non-catastrophic) reduction in elk numbers as well as the change in their eating habits have allowed other species including songbirds and beavers to once again thrive.

The gray wolf reintroduction was not without opponents, however, and Journey’s entry into California is rousing the same adversaries. Ranchers assert that wolves will wipe out livestock while others say that the wolves are dangerous for humans. The facts, however, tell a different story. In 2010, wolves accounted for .14% of combined cattle and calf losses in the United States (PDF).  In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined, wolves accounted for 2.07% of losses – higher but a far cry from decimation. As for human safety, wolves are not dangerous to humans in the overwhelming majority of circumstances. Although there were two deaths recently in Canada and Alaska, those are “the only fatal attacks in the last 100 years“. You’re more likely to get killed by a bear or a bee than a wolf.

While wolves have a limited impact on livestock and are generally safe for humans, these concerns should nonetheless be acknowledged. Although there was significant local involvement, the wolf reintroduction was a federal initiative carried out under the federal Endangered Species Act and local ranchers and citizens should not be forced to bear the financial burden of the reintroduction. To that end, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife established a wolf compensation fund that gave ranchers market value for livestock taken by wolves if they supplied adequate proof. Currently, that program is being transitioned to state agencies in Montana and Idaho with the support of federal funding – Wyoming is a special case as their wolf management plan has not been finally approved because of inadequate protections for wolves. Livestock loss is also curbed through the translocation (or culling, unfortunately) of wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock. Human safety should be addressed through education about safe interactions with wolves and programs to ensure that packs do not become habituated to human contact.

What should Californians expect from Journey’s stay in our state? Likely very little. He is currently looking for a mate and territory to establish a new pack. While there is certainly adequate territory, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a mate. Nonetheless, in the long run, it’s quite possible that wolves could become reestablished in their historic range along the Sierra Nevadas (and debatably the Coastal Range). If that happens, Californians should embrace the wolf as an important part of a healthy ecosystem while taking steps to limit their negative effects on ranchers and others.

Currently, Journey is in Lassen County, the same place that the last wolf was killed in 1924. Few if any will see him but the knowledge that he is there reaffirms the vitality of our wilderness.

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