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.

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.

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. As a founding member of the Pacific 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 March 2015, prior to pupping season, Washington’s wolf count included five successful breeding pairs and at least 68 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.

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. In early summer of 2014, 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 but the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission denied our petition. In August 2014 the Center and allies helped shut down the state wildlife agency’s efforts to kill members of the Huckleberry pack for livestock losses, after the state failed to undertake sufficient nonlethal deterrence measures to prevent conflicts with livestock in this pack’s territory. At least three wolves were illegally killed by poachers in Washington in 2014, and the Center has offered rewards to assist law enforcement in identifying the perpetrators. New attacks on wolves were introduced in the 2015 legislative session, including bills to prematurely remove state protections for wolves in the eastern part of the state and to reduce wolf recovery goal numbers. The Center worked with allies to combat these bills and no anti-wolf legislation was passed.

OREGON

Wolves started returning to Oregon in 1999, and the first pack, the Imnaha, was established in 2008. By July 2015 a total of ten packs were confirmed, with nine in eastern Oregon and one pack in the southwestern part of the state. At that time, the overall wolf population was at 85 observed  wolves, though two adult wolves were subsequently found dead under suspicious circumstances in August. 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 spring of 2015, this wolf family had its second litter of pups. Since January 2015, the state fish and wildlife agency confirmed a small group of wolves spotted by trail camera in territory nearby to the south of OR-7’s family, and two radio-collared wolves from northeastern Oregon separately set out on their own to the west. In October 2015, the agency identified a trail camera photo taken in July of a wolf in the Cascades as one which had dispersed from the Imnaha pack in 2011. Wolves are starting to make their way into western Oregon but 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. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2005; the plan undergoes review every five years, and will next undergo review in early 2016.

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 livestock-wolf conflicts declined. As a result of our lawsuit, wolves had stronger protections in Oregon and the state was a model of how people could coexist with wolves and allow them to reestablish. But the recent state-delisting of wolves is an unfortunate step backwards by the state to appease ranching and hunting groups who 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 revealed that she is related to the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon. Establishing a home range in Siskiyou County, the Shasta pack’s presence confirms that California is wolf country and can support recovery of this magnificent native species. As added proof, in January 2016, agency officials announced that Oregon wolf, OR-25, had crossed the border into California and had traveled in Modoc County before returning to Oregon.

The return of wolves to California was initiated in December 2011 when wolf OR-7, a radio-collared wolf from Oregon crossed the border into California, becoming the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in 87 years.

Also originating from the Imnaha pack, when he was 2 ½ years old, OR-7 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, 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 have officially been named the Rogue pack. With the Shasta pack 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 2015 the California Fish and Wildlife Department released a draft state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan for public comment. The plan has a strong focus on using nonlethal methods to conserve and manage wolves, but it aims to remove state protections when there are only 50-75 wolves in the state and seeks to override the state endangered species act in order to be able to kill wolves. The Center will continue to advocate for nonlethal coexistence with wolves and will fight for ongoing protections and full recovery. With allies, we submitted comments on the plan in February 2016.

 

Gray wolf photo courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife