A rare gray wolf couple new to California have mated, producing at least three pups this year, officials say, and establishing the second pack of the endangered species in the state.
State biologists made the discovery after capturing the female gray wolf in Lassen County in late June and fitting a tracking collar on her. They’d initially spotted her and her mate during the summer and fall of 2016, when remote trail cameras captured images of the pair traveling in the northeast part of the state, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) said.
There was no evidence the couple had produced pups at that time, but biologists doing a routine check on the female wolf in the field on July 1 found the "very small tracks" of what appeared to be wolf pups, Jordan Traverso, a CDFW spokeswoman, said Thursday. They then found that a nearby U.S. Forest Service trail camera had captured images of the pups playing close up.
"As it turns out they had been there -- right in front of the trail camera. It’s pretty fortuitous, and some of those pictures are absolutely just so cute of those pups," Traverso said.
"Some of them are looking right at the camera," she added.
The pack is the second one detected in California since the extinction -- or extirpation -- of gray wolves statewide in the 1920s. The first confirmed breeding pair in California produced five pups in eastern Siskiyou County in 2015. They’re called the Shasta Pack and the second is the Lassen Pack.
"For a really long time, they’ve been extirpated, but there’s re-introductions that have happened in other states ... they had come back to Washington and Oregon and they disperse," Traverso said. "We knew it was only a matter of time."
Gray wolves are categorized as endangered by the state and at the federal level. They can't be hunted or killed under the state's protections.
"We were really excited that there is another established pack in California," Traverso said. "We know it’s met with a lot of mixed emotions, based on the fact that there’s a lot of different uses of land up in the northern part of the state, including a lot of cattle ranchers. But it’s also a great ecological story that wolves are re-establishing after almost 100 years."
The tracking collar was put on the Lassen Pack's 75-pound female wolf on June 30 after 12 days of trapping attempts. State biologists planned the capture operation after the U.S. Forest Service found evidence of a recent wolf presence in Lassen National Forest.
“The anesthesia and collaring process went smoothly and the wolf was in excellent condition,” CDFW’s senior wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Deana Clifford, said in a statement. “Furthermore, our physical examination indicated that she had given birth to pups this spring.”
The female wolf was lactating, and state biologists believe it's her first litter. It's unclear how old the pups are. "She’s still nursing them. It’s really hard to assess," Traverso said.
While the female’s origins remain unknown, genetic samples obtained from scat indicate the male wolf originated from Oregon’s Rogue Pack. Traverso said he is the son of the famous wolf OR-7, the Rogue Pack’s breeding male -- who generated international interest when he became the first wild wolf in nearly a century to venture into Northern California.
Photos taken in 2014, also by remote camera, confirmed that OR-7 had at least three pups. Today, his son's pups are the equivalent of his grand-pups.
Biologists are hoping to learn a lot more about the Lassen Pack via the collar on the female -- the first gray wolf collared in California. The collar will collect data about her activity patterns, survival, reproduction and prey preferences. It may also help to minimize wolf-livestock conflicts by providing information about the pack’s location.
"It’s going to help us learn and glean information that can help us with the conservation management plan, as far as how we can help protect livestock and also help the species grow in the state," Traverso said.
So far, biologists know that the Lassen Pack regularly crosses public and private lands. While most of the pack’s known activity to date has been in western Lassen County, some tracks also have been confirmed in Plumas County, the CDFW said.