It’s been 90 years since the last native California wolf was trapped and killed. This month, Oregon wildlife officials announced that OR-7, the wolf they’ve tracked wandering in and out of northern California, had found a mate and fathered a new litter in southern Oregon.
That news contributes to the growing sense that it’s only a matter of time until wolves re-inhabit the Golden State. Against this backdrop, California wildlife officials extended endangered species status to the gray wolf.
The public comment at a recent hearing in Northern California's Humboldt County was sometimes intense and emotional. Ranchers and others who opposed the endangered species listing for the wolf spoke in stark terms about the danger they feel the animal poses.
“What the wolf is is a coyote on steroids, it is a killing machine,” one resident argued.
Opponents said wolves carry diseases and have been responsible for dramatic declines in wild elk herds in Yellowstone National Park.
But supporters of the listing were passionate, as well. One young woman repeatedly broke down in tears as she tried to give her testimony. Another speaker, wearing a plush wolf hat, burst into song at the podium.
“The wolf is howling for her pup, she sings an untold song of love,” chimed the singer.
In the end, the California Fish and Game Commission voted 3-1 to list the wolf as endangered. Amaroq Weiss, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she’s thrilled.
“Having an endangered species walk back in, is an incredible moment,” Weiss said.
Weiss was the main petitioner requesting the listing. She says driving the wolf off the landscape over the past century was a mistake. She quotes pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold’s admonition that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
“If you start throwing away the parts, if you start letting pieces of nature disappear, other pieces of nature disappear," Weiss said. "It’s all linked together.”
Weiss says restoring wolves to their natural place re-balances ecosystems by changing the behavior of elk and deer.
“They cause these prey animals to be on the move. That means that they’ve not over browsing in a particular area. So the vegetation has a chance to regenerate," she said. "That vegetation is critical for the health of other species, like birds, that use it to roost and nest on.”
Weiss says the fact that California has now joined Oregon and Washington in offering gray wolves protection puts the West Coast in the forefront of wolf restoration. Jack Hanson, a member of the California Cattlemen’s Association, doesn’t share her enthusiasm.
“We oppose this adamantly," Hanson said. "We have plenty of predators as it is.”
Hanson runs a ranch in northeastern California. He acknowledges that, statistically, wolves account for a tiny part of livestock losses for ranchers.
“But I think the true financial cost comes in the constant harassment and stress that the livestock would feel if there were a pack of wolves in their area,” Hanson said.
He also has personal safety concerns about having to live with wolves. “It’s nerve wracking enough sometimes with mountain lions, bears to a certain extent and then the wolf being added to the mix.”
Still, Hanson says, having a few wolves on nearby federal lands might not worry him too much. More than a few could be more of a concern, however.
“If we had two or three packs roaming in a very tight circle, I would definitely be concerned, and I would want some mechanism, some management plan that would assist me in keeping the population in balance,” he said.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working on just such a management plan. It was prompted at least in part by the arrival in 2011 of OR-7. The young male wolf’s journeys back and forth across the Oregon-California border — tracked by researchers via electronic collar — spurred officials in Sacramento to start planning for how to manage wolves when they return to the state.
Agricultural representatives on the stakeholder group formed to advise on the management plan see the endangered species listing as an end-run around what was supposed to be a collaborative planning process. They fear the listing won’t allow for reducing wolf populations if they start to threaten livestock producers.
Those fears may be justified. Sonke Mastrup is executive director of the California Fish and Game Commission. He says the state’s Endangered Species Act allows for accidentally killing or disturbing a listed species.
“At the same time it prohibits directed take," Mastrup said, "which means you couldn’t issue a permit to take a wolf.”
Mastrup says he hopes the ranchers won’t pull out of the planning process, as some have threatened to do.
“Regardless of the commission’s decision, it’s in the best interest of the state that we have some clear vision of how we’re going to deal with wolves down the road,” he said.
The California Cattlemen’s Association says it’s still deciding whether to continue participating.
Meanwhile, the news that OR-7 seems to be starting a family just over the border in Oregon has ratcheted up the sense that the wolves are coming in the next decade or so. And, in the face of federal endangered species protections increasingly being withdrawn, California has just rolled out the welcome mat.
This was first reported for Jefferson Public Radio.