Gray wolves are the largest members of the dog family (canis lupus), and the ancestor of the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris). They form highly socialized packs with strict hierarchy. Gray wolves have a complex communication system that involves body language, barking, growling, “dancing,” howling and scent making.
Wolves were once common throughout all of North America; however due to conflicts between the cattle and livestock industry, and the proliferation of largely erroneous myths about wolves as vicious man-eaters by the 1930’s they had been hunted to near extinction.
The last wolf was killed in Lassen County, California in 1924, and in Yellowstone National Park in 1926.
Among the first animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, in 1974 the gray wolf was listed as endangered in all of the lower 48 states except Minnesota, where it was listed as threatened.
In 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a controversial, and successful, wolf reintroduction program in Yellowstone National Park. An initial relocation of 66 wolves from Canada has now produced a total wolf population in the western United States of more than 1,600 wolves.
Since their return in, wolves have benefited their ecosystems by regulating prey numbers and movements—allowing stream-bank habitats to recover, reducing densities of coyotes, and providing food for scavengers.
However, gray wolf recovery in other western states has been controversial, particularly regarding impacts on prey populations, livestock depredation and human safety.
There have been instances where gray wolf predation has contributed to declines in deer and elk populations, however, in most cases, predation has had little effect, and in fact in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Minnesota elk and deer populations are at or exceed population objectives for most hunting units.
It is true that some gray wolves have attacked and killed livestock, mostly sheep and cattle, while others rely on wild prey. In the western states the impact of wolves on livestock has been exceptionally small, especially compared to impacts by bears, coyotes and mountain lions, and from other more mundane sources like poison plants, lightning and even domestic dogs.
Losses of livestock may be avoidable with implementation of simple measure that would reduce predator opportunity such as, removal of dead carcasses from rangelands, corralling animals at night, simple fencing, the use of guard animals (dogs, llamas, donkeys, and mules) and human herders.
Concerns about human safety are largely based on folklore and are unsubstantiated in North America. In recent years there was one human-mortality in Canada caused either by wolves or bears, and one confirmed human-mortality in Alaska by wolves. Based on experience from states where substantial wolf populations now exist, wolves pose little risk to humans.
Under pressure from hunters, ranchers and farmers, Congress removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho and parts of eastern Washington and Oregon in May of 2011, and Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in January of 2012.
Gray wolves remain federally protected under the Endangered Species Act in western Washington and Oregon (west of Highway 395), and all of California.
On December 29, 2011, the first known wolf in more than 85 year returned to California.
The California wolf, officially named OR-07 and aptly renamed, “Journey” was born in Oregon in 2009 to the Imnaha pack in Wallowa County, in northeast Oregon. His mother became the first wolf to recolonize Oregon when she crossed from Idaho several years ago. Journey is a 90-pound subadult that was tranquilized and collared in February 2011. He split from that pack Sept. 10, 2011 in what biologists called dispersing, the wolf’s version of leaving the nest. He has since wondered more than 1,000 miles over mountains, across highways, through forests and wildlands into northern California’s Siskiyou, Shasta and Lassen Counties.
For updates on OR-07’s whereabouts click here to be redirected to California’s Department of Fish and Game website.
Wolf Recovery in Northern California
Many people are asking: Can wolves live in California? Most people think of Yellowstone National Park, Idaho or Montana when they think of wolf habitat. While it may seem a little strange at first, California has extensive areas of suitable habitat for wolves. In particular, large wilderness areas such as the Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps and backcountry areas around Lassen and Mt. Shasta have high potential to support wolves. Furthermore, once re-established in northern California, wolves could feasibly repopulate the Sierra Nevada, which contains a large amount of suitable habitat in its own right. Researchers modeling the suitability of habitat for wolf recovery determined that the southern Oregon Cascades and vast areas of northern California’s wild areas would support wolves (Carroll et al. 2006). For a comparison of our region to core wolf country in the northern Rockies, the maps below show suitable habitat if lands are managed for restoration of natural processes and wildlife populations. Of particular importance is the removal of roads. Darker green indicates the best habitat while light green and red show less suitable habitat that would act as linkage areas
The questions and answers about wolves returning to California are becoming clearer day by day. As biologists learn more about wolf behavior in Oregon, this knowledge will be directly applicable to California. As leading wolf researchers have argued, large predators can make a comeback to California (Carroll et al 2001). We are now beginning to see the proof.
At EPIC, we intend to advocate for wolves as strongly as we advocate for all native biological diversity in northern California. That means continuing our important work in defending our forests and wild areas from exploitation and destruction, while also working to educate the public, and helping to reduce potential conflicts.
Because of this work and the tireless efforts of many individuals to defend and restore our wild landscapes, we can offer something to this wild wandering wolf. Whether he remains in our region is anyone’s guess, but we hope that he likes what he finds and is joined by more wolves in the near future.
Wolf Enters California: Wild California Just Got a Little More Wild - January 5, 2012
Petition Filed to Protect Gray Wolves Under California Endangered Species Act – February 27, 2012