BACKGROUND: WOLVES IN CALIFORNIA

 


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Contacts: Noah Greenwald and Amaroq Weiss

Wolves on the West Coast

Wolves were once common along the West Coast, from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state through Oregon to the far reaches of Southern California. As keystone predators, wolves play a vital role in regulating prey populations like deer and elk, and in so doing benefit a host of species. By forcing elk to move more, for example, wolves have sometimes been found to increase streamside vegetation and, along with it, beaver and songbird populations.

Decades of extermination programs to appease the livestock industry drove wolves out of West Coast states in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The last wild wolf was documented in California in 1924, when it was shot in Lassen County. The last breeding wolves in Washington were eliminated in the 1930s, and in Oregon the last wolf was killed for a bounty in 1946.

Today the West Coast is a region crucial to wolf recovery. As wolf populations have expanded in the northern Rocky Mountains, the animals have moved west. As these populations reach new areas, they need state and federal protections to ensure they aren’t exterminated again. In fact, when a wild wolf called OR-7, or “Journey,” reached California in late 2011, ranchers quickly called for a “shield” to block the entrance of other wolves; some even vowed to shoot wolves on sight.

That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity and allies petitioned California to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act and, in June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to grant our petition. Those protections were extremely timely because only one year later, California’s first known wolf family, the Shasta pack, was confirmed in the state, and the following year a new pair was confirmed in Lassen County.

But there’s still a vast amount of work to be done for West Coast wolves. Although wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes have met with success, wolves in the lower 48 states still occupy less than 10 percent of their historic habitat. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated it intends to remove federal protections for wolves in the lower 48 states, including the West Coast. If the United States is going to continue recovering its wolf population — and if it wants to retain authentic wilderness within its borders — then it needs the West Coast, which is one of the best places for wolf recovery with plenty of suitable wolf habitat and a largely supportive human population.

As a founding member of the Pacific Wolf Coalition, the Washington Wolf Collaborative, Oregon Wolf Strategy Group and Calwolf Group — as well as an advisory member of the Eastern Washington Wolf Coalition — the Center is working with conservation groups across the region to ensure that wolves retain needed protections at the state and federal level.

WASHINGTON

The first reliable reports of wolves returning to Washington came in 2002. By early 2015 Washington had 16 confirmed wolf packs in the eastern and central portions of the state. As of the end of 2016, Washington’s wolf count included 20 packs with 10 successful breeding pairs and at least 115 individuals. 

Scientists have identified several additional wild areas in Washington that wolves could occupy, including the Olympic Peninsula.

In 2011 Congress stripped wolves in the eastern third of the state of their federal Endangered Species Act protections. All wolves in the state remain protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2011.

In each year’s legislative session, anti-wolf bills are introduced — and each year the Center works with allies in Washington to ensure that those bills get defeated. Some years, legislators introduce bills that are actually helpful for wolves, such as those intended to secure funds in the state budget for wolf conservation, management and research, and the Center works with allies to get those bills passed. We continue to strive for key provisions of the state wolf plan to be made enforceable through the adoption of regulations by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, and we’ve filed several administrative petitions seeking this adoption. We’ve also taken strong, decisive action to shut down attempts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to kill wolves in response to conflicts with livestock, and to broadly shine a light on these “management” actions that are unscientific and costly and that run counter to the wishes of the vast majority of Washington residents. Since wolves are also killed in Washington by poachers, the Center and allies have offered rewards to assist law enforcement in identifying the perpetrators.

OREGON

Wolves started returning to Oregon in 1999, and the first pack there — the Imnaha pack — was established in 2008. By July 2015 a total of 110 wolves in twelve packs with 11 breeding pairs were confirmed, with 11 packs in eastern Oregon and one pack in the southwestern part of the state. In June 2014 it was confirmed that the wolf known as OR-7, who made California part of his range for four years, had found a mate and sired pups in the Oregon portion of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, near the Oregon-California border. In early 2015 OR-7’s pack was officially named the Rogue pack and, in the springs of 2015 and 2016, this wolf family had its second and third litter of pups. Other individuals and pairs of wolves have been confirmed in southwest Oregon not far from the Rogue pack’s territory, and one of OR-7’s male pups from his 2014 litter has moved into California and paired up with a female of unknown origin. Though wolves are starting to make their way into western Oregon, they’re still are at very low numbers and remain absent from nearly 90 percent of suitable wolf habitat in the state.

Congress stripped wolves of their federal Endangered Species Act protection in the eastern third of Oregon in 2011. In November 2015, ignoring legal requirements and the best available science, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission stripped wolves of state endangered species act protections. In late December 2015, the Center and allies filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s illegal and premature removal of protections from the state’s fragile and still-recovering wolf population and this lawsuit is still pending. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2005; the plan is required to undergo review every five years but the mandated review was delayed by the state-delisting process and is just now taking place.

Over the years, the Center and allies have defeated anti-wolf bills in the state legislature and have legally challenged the state for improper actions. This includes our pending challenge against the state’s premature delisting of wolves, as well as a lawsuit we filed with allies in 2011 challenging the state for rushing to kill wolves in violation of the state wolf plan.  We obtained a court injunction that prevented the killing of wolves for livestock conflicts, and during the several years the lawsuit was pending the wolf population nearly doubled — and livestock-wolf conflicts declined as the agency and ranchers were forced to use nonlethal conflict-deterrence measures. As a result of our lawsuit, wolves had stronger protections in Oregon and the state was a model of people coexisting well with wolves and allowing these animals to reestablish. But the recent Oregon delisting of wolves is an unfortunate step backward by the state to appease ranching and hunting groups that would prefer to stop Oregon’s wolf recovery in its tracks. The Center will continue to fight for restored legal protections for wolves and for full wolf recovery in the state and regionwide.

CALIFORNIA

For the first time in at least 100 years, in August 2015 a gray wolf family was documented in California. Named the “Shasta pack” by agency staff, the all-black two adults and five pups were first observed as solo adult animals photographed by trail camera until one camera finally captured images of the entire family together. DNA analysis of scat collected from the breeding female and male revealed they are both related to the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon. Establishing a home range in Siskiyou County, the Shasta pack’s presence confirmed that California is wolf country and can support recovery of this magnificent native species. As added proof, Oregon wolf OR-25 began moving back and forth across the Oregon-California border in late 2015 and has continued to do so. And, in 2016, a new pair of wolves was confirmed in Lassen County.

The return of wolves to California was initiated in December 2011 when wolf OR-7 — a 2 ½-year-old radio-collared wolf from Oregon — left his family pack, traveled across the state and crossed the border into California, becoming the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in 87 years. 

Originating from Oregon’s Imnaha pack, OR-7 traveled more than 700 miles from the northeastern corner of Oregon to make his way into California’s Siskiyou County. After nearly 15 months exploring seven different Northern California counties, OR-7 traveled back into Oregon in March of 2013, but returned to California several more times that same year and in 2014, clearly making California part of his range. Since leaving his Oregon birthpack, he traveled 4,000-plus miles, earning the nickname “Journey.” 

In February 2012 the Center and allies filed a petition to protect wolves in California under its state Endangered Species Act, and two years later — after an extensive public process and on the very same day that agency officials confirmed that OR-7 and a mate had denned in southern Oregon and given birth to puppies — California granted state protection to gray wolves. OR-7 and his mate had pups again in 2015 and 2016 and have officially been named the Rogue pack. One pup from the 2014 litter went on to become the adult male wolf of California’s newly confirmed Lassen pair. With the Shasta pack and Lassen pair in Northern California and the Rogue pack in southwestern Oregon, wolves are beginning to reclaim parts of their historical range on the West Coast and will need strong legal protections to keep them safe and their recovery on track.  

In December 2016 the California Fish and Wildlife Department released a state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, prepared with input from stakeholder groups including the Center. Some aspects of the plan provide strong protections for wolves, while other aspects don’t go nearly far enough.

In January 2017 a lawsuit was filed by Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation seeking to overturn the state’s Endangered Species Act listing of wolves so that wolves can be killed. The Center and allies have filed to intervene in that lawsuit to vigorously defend against this baseless legal challenge.

The Center will continue to advocate for nonlethal human coexistence with wolves, and we’ll never stop fighting for full protections and full recovery.

Gray wolf photo courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife