After a two-month jaunt in Northern California, the lone wolf known as OR7 is now hanging out near the state border with Oregon. The two-year-old male wolf, California’s first in almost 90 years, has stirred both fascination and concern. OR7 has also prompted state officials to consider how to manage a growing wolf population.
In other Western states, the expansion of wolves has brought intense public debate, not to mention years of lawsuits. Ranchers and hunters believe the wolves kill too many livestock and elk. Environmental groups say ecosystems are healthier with a top predator like wolves.
To see if California could avoid this knock-down-drag-out fight, I spoke to Ed Bangs, the recently retired wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s been on the frontlines of the wolf debate for more than two decades.
Wolves have made an astounding recovery in the West, which is why a wolf came into California, right?
Wolves are one of the most adaptable species on Earth. They’re a very cool animal. They can stand just about anything except for human persecution. Our society decided that wolves didn’t have a place in the lower 48 and we got rid of them all. By 1930, they were gone.
With the environmental movement in the 60s, Canada and Alaska started wolf recovery. Wolf populations in Canada started to expand and as they did, we started to see a few show up in northern Montana. In 1986, the first den was discovered. Since then, natural recovery has pretty much filled up northern Montana and Idaho. And we reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 to accelerate wolf recovery.
When I retired, there were over 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington and Oregon.
How would a pack get established in California?
Wolves always leave their pack as lone animals. Males and females disperse at equal rates and equal distances. A pack is all family members, so it’s like looking for a date at your dinner table. If you want to get married, you leave town. They head out and avoid other packs. They scent-mark until they find someone of the opposite sex.
The peak of breeding season is Valentine’s Day. That’s what starts a pack – these lone males and females. The lone male in California has probably missed his chance this year.
We’ve had dispersing wolves going into Colorado for 10 years now. They are no closer to a pack than they were 10 years ago. When you have a loner, it’s biologically meaningless. You need a pair to breed. But what it does do is fire up the public.
Right, which is what’s happened in other states. Is there any way that California can avoid the battles and lawsuits?
No, I don’t think so. It’s nice to imagine that. You have to remember wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality. I mean we can give you facts, you know, all the biology stuff. That isn’t what people talk about. They’re talking about what wolves mean to them symbolically.
The concept of wolves immediately polarizes people. You’re calling me to talk about wolves, not red-backed voles. And there’s a reason for that: because people are fascinated by wolves. Anytime you mix wolves and people, the reactions are very predictable. California is going to go through that very thing.
That doesn’t sound too promising...
It’s not a bad thing. It forces a fair, open debate. 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.
I think California Fish and Game is going about it in the right way. They’re transparent and open. They’ve had public contact. I think it’s a positive sign. I’m a firm believer that better information gives you the chance to make better decisions. There’ll be rough spots in the road, but getting out in front of it is a good thing.
Some ranchers and environmentalists are working on methods to coexist with wolves…
There’s no silver bullet, pardon the pun. To the livestock industry, wolf losses are so small, you can’t even measure them. If it’s your calf being killed, it’s a very big deal. Can you have wolves with no damage? No. Can you have wolves with a tolerable level of damage? Yes. There are tools to do that. There’s compensation and livestock protection measures.
Wolves kill livestock much less frequently than you’d believe. I find it amazing still, given almost unlimited opportunity, that there’s as few depredations as there are. But resolution of some of those conflicts has involved killing wolves. We’ve killed nearly 2,000 wolves in the past 20 years due to livestock depredation.
You have to respect both sides of the issue. You can see some people want wolves back and some don’t want to be run out of business. There’s compromise but it takes both sides to do that. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap.