OR7, the lone gray wolf from a pack in Oregon, crossed back into his home state last Thursday after two months of wandering in Northern California. OR7’s trek made him the first wolf in California in almost 90 years. Officials say it’s possible the wolf will continue to travel both states. (Update Mar 5: Apparently so. California Fish and Game reports today that OR7 has crossed back into California.)
With OR7’s arrival, California has been thrown into a national debate about how to manage wolves. Environmentalists want to see a wolf population restored in the state. For others, OR7 is not a welcome visitor. In Lassen County, where OR7 has spent the bulk of his time, wolf opposition is heating up.
"If it's killing my cattle, I'm gonna kill it."
At a recent county board of supervisors meeting in Susanville, a town in the state’s rural northeast corner, Fish and Game biologist Karen Kovacs takes the podium. “What we’re here today to do is just to share what we know about wolves in California,” she says to the crowd.
Kovacs’ agency gets daily downloads about the two-year-old male wolf’s location through its radio collar. “Are there other wolves in California? That’s a $64 million dollar question,” she says.
If there's one thing Kovacs has learned since OR7 arrived, it’s that wolves make people emotional. For several weeks, Kovacs and other wildlife officials have attended a number of public meetings about California’s wolf. In the state’s northern counties, the reaction has been vocal.
“The protection afforded something that doesn’t belong here in the first place doesn’t make any sense,” says Susanville resident Len Grizwold. Says another resident: “Be cautious, folks. They’re here to tell you there’s nothing to worry about.”
The reception from county supervisor and rancher Bob Pyle isn’t any warmer. “I really don’t care what it is. If it’s killing my cattle, I’m gonna kill it," he says.
“Any wolf in California is considered endangered,” responds Susan Moore of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “And if you should take it, kill it, it is a $100,000 fine or a year in jail, or both.”
This dichotomy of sentiment has followed wolves from the moment they were reintroduced in the West almost 20 years ago. In states like Idaho and Montana, where wolf populations have rebounded, an all-out war has broken out between ranchers and hunters, who say wolves kill too many livestock and elk, and environmentalists, who see the animals as a key part of a healthy ecosystem.
With OR7’s arrival, that debate has come to California.
On the Wolf’s Trail
In a quiet pine forest outside of Susanville, Kovacs and Fish and Game biologist Richard Callas walk through a light layer of snow. OR7 crossed a major highway nearby a few weeks ago, not far from where California’s last wolf was trapped and killed in 1924.
“The way we find his tracks is because they’re pretty darn big,” says Kovacs.
For the wolf's protection, his exact location is kept secret. But once he leaves an area, Kovacs and Callas descend to see what he’s been eating. “We know that OR7 has fed on two deer. We don’t know if he killed them or scavenged them,” Callas says.
Life isn’t easy for a wolf on his own. But there’s a reason OR7 has traveled 2,000 miles since he left his pack in Oregon last September. “His love life hasn’t been much to brag about lately,” Callas says. “But he’s certainly looking for a mate.”
In other states, it’s taken about 10 years for a pack to get established after the first wolf showed up. But biologists aren’t sure how successful wolves will be here. “Our elk population is smaller than some state like Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. Our deer numbers were lower than they were,” Callas says.
Since Oregon’s wolf packs live hundreds of miles from the border, it could be some time before another wolf wanders this way. But for the Department of Fish and Game, that may not matter. Groups on both sides are calling for some kind of plan to manage wolves.
“There are entities out there who are ready to litigate at the drop of a hat,” says Kovacs. “Can we get those stakeholders here in California to the table to collectively meet to move forward?”
Local Ranchers Concerned
On a cold morning at Willow Creek Ranch outside of Susanville, Jack Hanson is getting ready to feed 300 hungry cattle. A few weeks ago, OR7 wasn’t far from here. “About 17 or 18 miles as the crow flies,” says Hanson.
Hanson says it’s not OR7 that’s he’s worried about. It’s that wolf populations could grow. In other states, some ranchers are trying out tools to deter wolves, like special fencing and loud noises. Some even get text messages when wolves are close.
Most ranchers see wolves as one more thing to deal with in an already tough industry, says Hanson. Still, he wants to be part of the discussion. “We’ll be able to have a dialogue with agencies. I don’t think it will ever come to exactly where we want it, which is not to have them back in the first place.”
State and Federal Protections
Wolves are currently protected in California under the federal Endangered Species Act, but several environmental groups are petitioning the state to protect them under California law as well. That would require the Department of Fish and Game to figure out how many wolves belong in California and how they’ll recover.
The federal government is also considering whether to specially protect California wolves. Populations in Idaho, Montana and parts of Oregon and Washington have already been taken off the endangered species list, but this week the agency recommended removing protection for wolves in some of the remaining parts of the lower 48 states.
California wolves may still be protected, however. Fish and Wildlife is considering whether to specially protect wolves in parts of Oregon, Washington and California. If so, the agency would consider writing a recovery plan for what would be known as the Pacific Northwest population. That decision is due by September 30th.
“We don’t see California as being essential to the recovery of wolves. It’s not prime wolf habitat,” says Dan Ashe, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “But certainly, wolves will move hopefully in the future and will find some hospitable territory in California. Some may establish themselves there, but hopefully they’ll be well-managed under state law.”
Weathering the Debate
The question is: Can California avoid the battles that other states have seen?
“No, I don’t think so,” says Ed Bangs, the recently retired Wolf Recovery Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s been in the middle of the Western wolf debate for two decades.
“You have to remember wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality. I mean we can give you facts, you know all this biology stuff. That isn’t what people talk about. They’re talking about what wolves mean to them symbolically.”
But he thinks that debate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Imagine if it was the way it was before when no one cared at all about natural resources or wildlife? Apathy is a lot worse.”
Just 30 years ago, there were only a handful of gray wolves in the West. Today, there are more than 1,600.