California only has one known wolf, and now wildlife activists are worried that he will die in a storm of bullets.
The Pit River Rod and Gun Club is holding a coyote hunting contest in Modoc County where the wolf -- whom biologists have dubbed OR7 -- was spotted last year. In the process of killing coyotes, the activists fear, hunters will accidentally kill the gray wolf.
Hundreds of participants will compete to see who can kill the most coyotes in the event from Feb. 8 to Feb. 10.
No one can legally hunt a wolf in California, but coyotes are fair game. In fact there is no season and no limit on the number a hunter can kill in a day. And the wildlife protection folks have a problem with that as well.
"At Project Coyote we believe that killing coyotes or any animal as part of a contest is ethically indefensible," said Camilla Fox, the organization's executive director.
Steve Gagnon of the Adin Supply Company, a co-sponsor of Coyote Drive 7, responded that it's part of a way of life. "What we have here is part of our heritage," he said. "It's been going on for years and years."
Many ranchers in the area support the hunt because coyotes kill livestock, he said. "We just had a cow die and a pack of coyotes ate the calf as it came out, and killed the cow as well."
Gagnon said he wasn't sure what is the record number of coyotes an individual hunter has killed in the contest, but he thought it was fewer than 10.
The activists are hoping that the presence of OR7 in the area will lead government agencies to prohibit the hunt, which has taken place annually for the last seven years.
After leaving an Oregon pack in December 2011, the wolf wandered into California, where no wolf had been seen in 90 years. Wolves once ranged throughout the United States, but were driven into extinction in many states. Wildlife agencies have been gradually reintroducing them.
It's possible that some other wolf has trekked into California from Oregon without detection, and could be prowling the forest outside Adin, Fox pointed out.
The Bureau of Land Management has warned organizers that the hunt cannot take place on public lands, but Gagnon said hunters were already planning to focus on ranches anyway.
But Karen Kovacs, Northern Region wildlife program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said OR7, who wears a collar with an radio transmitter, is currently in Northeastern Tehama County. That would put him less than 100 miles from Adin as the crow flies, and OR7 moves about 15 miles per day in that measurement.
Last year during the hunt, the wolf was in Modoc County, Kovacs said, and even then the department did not forbid the coyote hunt. Instead, her department worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Fish and Game to warn coyote hunters about the wolf. "We all participated in providing a greater presence on the landscape to physically talk to people for the duration of this hunt," she said.
Wildlife protection groups say they've stopped other hunts, however. In New Mexico, state officials warned hunters not to shoot coyote on state lands. And in North Carolina a court order put a stop to coyote hunting at least temporarily after seven red wolves were shot there.
"A wolf and a coyote to a 15-year-old with a gun are going to look exactly the same," said Oliver Starr, the owner of a pet wolf in Woodacre, Calif.
He argued that there are better methods for protecting wildlife than hunting coyotes. When coyotes are killed, other coyotes have larger litters and juveniles are more likely to attack livestock, said Starr, whose only family was once in the cattle business. He suggested that ranchers could use deterrents such as noise makers and guard dogs instead of guns.
"Coyotes and foxes kill rats and mice," he said. He pointed out that the rodents can spread hantavirus and suggested hunting their predators could be responsible for an outbreak of the disease in Yosemite last year.
Kovacs agreed that coyotes occupy an important niche in the natural food chain. But she said hunting doesn't pose as much of a threat to them as development. "Human activities like damming up reservoirs and all of that probably has a much bigger impact than the removal of coyotes form a small area."