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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. In forcing elk to move more, for example, wolves have been found to increase streamside vegetation and, along with it, beaver and songbird populations.

Decades of extermination programs to accommodate 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 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 petitioned California to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act. In August 2012 the California Department of Fish and Game responded to the petition, recommending that the Fish and Game Commission make the gray wolf a candidate for protection under the state's Act.

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 5 percent of their historic habitat. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated it intends to remove 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.

In August 2012 the Center and 23 other conservation organizations sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for continued Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in the Pacific Northwest.


The first reliable reports of wolves returning to Washington came in 2002. Washington now has 10 confirmed, and two probable, wolf packs in the eastern and central portions of the state (as well as two “border packs” that travel in Washington at times but mostly live outside the state). As of March 2013, prior to pupping season, Washington’s wolf count included five successful breeding pairs and at least 51 individuals.

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

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.

The 2013 legislative session saw the introduction of eight anti-wolf bills. Working closely with allies in the state, the Center helped defeat all eight bills and get funds secured in the state budget for wolf conservation, management and research. This summer, when the state wildlife commission adopted rules violating the wolf plan regarding when wolves can be killed, we and our allies petitioned the state to make its wolf plan legally enforceable.


Wolves started returning to Oregon in 1999, and the first pack, the Imnaha, was established in 2008. There are now seven confirmed packs in eastern Oregon, including seven breeding pairs. Counting pups born during 2013, as of October, Oregon’s wolf population now stands at a minimum of 75 wolves.

Scientists have identified several other wild areas in Oregon that wolves could occupy, including extensive habitat in the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains.

Congress stripped wolves in the eastern third of Oregon of their federal Endangered Species Act protections. All wolves in the state remain protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2005.

State wildlife officials in the fall of 2011 ordered the killing of two members of the Imnaha pack, including the alpha male. The Center and allies went to court and secured a temporary stay on the killing. For nearly two years no wolves could be killed for wolf–livestock conflicts, and the state wildlife agency and ranchers relied solely on nonlethal, conflict-prevention measures. During that time, the wolf population nearly doubled and wolf–livestock conflicts declined. As a result of our lawsuit, wolves have stronger protections in Oregon.


For the first time in more than 85 years, a gray wolf was documented in California in December 2011. The 2 ½-year-old male, known as OR-7 or Journey, traveled more than 700 miles from the northeastern corner of Oregon and crossed into California’s Siskiyou County. After nearly 15 months exploring seven different Northern California counties, Journey traveled back into Oregon in March of this year. Since leaving his Oregon birthpack, the Imnaha pack, he has traveled more than 4,000 miles. In February 2012 the Center and allies filed a petition to protect wolves in California under its state Endangered Species Act, and the state will soon be making a final decision on that protection. The state wildlife agency is currently developing a wolf-management plan.


Gray wolf photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/StoneHorse Studios