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Background: Wolves in California

The arrival in California of the first confirmed wild wolf in nearly 90 years marks the beginnings of what could be a remarkable conservation success story — restoring a native species this state once drove to extinction. On December 28, 2011, a young male Oregon wolf known as OR-7 or “Journey” lifted a paw on the Oregon side of the border and set it back down in California, making history and international headlines. He has been traveling California’s northern counties for the past 14 months in search of a mate, with occasional trips back and forth across the border. To the north of us, in just one year’s time, Oregon’s wolf population has doubled, meaning even more wolves are likely to find their way to California.

Last year, to protect OR-7 and any wolves who follow after him, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies filed a petition with the state to list the gray wolf under California’s Endangered Species Act. In response, after analyzing the petition’s scientific information and additional science about wolves, the state wildlife agency prepared a report recommending to the state Fish and Game Commission that listing may be warranted.

The commission voted to accept our petition and designated wolves as a candidate species for listing, providing the species full state protections temporarily for 12 months while the wildlife agency prepares a more thorough report. That period ends October 2013, and a public comment period is now underway for the agency to gather information to consider in its 12-month report.

Here are the factors the state wildlife agency must consider in the preparation of its report. We’ve provided brief talking points after each factor, any of which you may use to include in your own letter to the agency:

Taxonomic status:

  • The field of wolf taxonomy continues to evolve, as scientific advances improve our ability to distinguish similarities and differences among subspecies and to identify where those subspecies may have overlapped geographically. Gray wolf subspecies thought to have historically occupied California include Canis lupus nubilus and Canis lupus occidentalis, and these two subspecies overlapped in range in parts of the United States and Canada. The one wolf that has dispersed to California, OR-7, was born to parents whose ancestry is traced to Canada, so he could be descended from either or both of these subspecies. As OR-7 has demonstrated, wolves travel long distances, and his presence in California is quite consistent with whatever subspecies of wolves may have once ranged across the state.


  • Scientists in North America have been studying the interactions and impacts of gray wolves in nature wherever wolves are being restored. Decades ago, as wolves were extirpated across the country, noted biologists including Aldo Leopold predicted that landscapes whose wolves were gone were missing a crucial component. It turns out that Leopold was right, as modern-day research has shown thatwolves play a vital rolealong with otherforces in nature in regulatingcomplex food web relationships between predators, prey, plants consumed by prey, and even other predators and scavengers. In this role, wolves provide beneficial “services” to healthy, wild nature; those services even contribute to a more prosperous economy. The return of wolves to California will mean that our state and its wild places and wild creatures can also reap the benefits of the impacts of wolf ecology.


  • As highly social animals, wolves live in multigenerational family packs that help in pup-rearing, hunting and maintaining territories. Management of wolves has often relied heavily on killing wolves as a response to wolf-livestock conflicts, but research suggests that killing members of wolf packs in fact increases the potential for more conflict. Killing older, more experienced animals puts the pack social hierarchy into disarray and may cause packs to splinter. Without experienced leaders to guide the pack or to instruct young wolves how to hunt wild prey, more wolf-livestock conflict, not less, can be the result. Wolf management in California should take into account the vital need for wolf packs to remain intact and should use nonlethal methods to prevent and resolve any conflicts that may occur.

Life history:

  • As wolf pups mature, around two to three years of age they often leave their packs to find mates and territories of their own. Wolf management in California should acknowledge that long-range dispersal is an essential part of the life history of wolves and should not create any barriers to wolves being able to disperse into and within the state.


  • Like any species at risk of extinction, conserving wolves will require that they be allowed to develop populations across a range of habitats in areas where they can thrive. Conservation measures implemented under the state’s Endangered Species Act, once the wolf is listed, should allow for wolves to naturally distribute across all suitable habitat.


  • There has been but one known wild wolf in California recently, and we learned of his presence in the state because of the signals emitted from his radio collar. Other unknown, uncollared wolves may have also dispersed into California. The state should develop and maintain a program to monitor wolf numbers in California, and conserve and manage the species with an aim to establish an ecologically functioning population of wolves here.


  • Wolves that disperse to California face immediate threats to their survival and to their ability to reproduce. There is only one known wolf in wandering in and out of California, and his inability to find a mate and reproduce places the species at extreme risk of extinction. An equally significant, if not even greater, threat is human-caused mortality, the leading cause of death for wolves. In the northern counties where wolves are most likely to enter California, officials have publically stated that wolves should be shot on sight. Similarly, public comments made in response to online news articles about wolves frequently include hostile rants against wolves and rallying cries of “shoot, shovel and shut up.” And a local, annual coyote contest hunt endangers the lives of any wolves that could be traveling in the area and mistaken for coyotes. State protections would increase the chances for survival of any wolves coming into the state, and would therefore increase the chances for wolves to reestablish populations here.

Habitat that may be essential for the species in California:

  • Wolves are habitat generalists and can live wherever humans will tolerate them. However, they do best in areas of low human settlement, few roads and good prey bases. Studies have shown that Northern California’s counties meet these criteria and could support up to 470 wolves. Habitat in California that fit these criteria should be protected against increased development of roads and increased housing development, and should be managed to provide good habitat for elk and deer, the primary prey base for wolves in the western United States. Public lands grazing allotments in areas of good wolf habitat should be evaluated to determine whether certain allotments should be retired and to establish permit requirements that only nonlethal methods of wolf-livestock conflict prevention and resolution be used on these public lands.

Management recommendations:

  • Wolf management should focus on conserving the species using an ecosystem-based approach. This means efforts should focus on methods and strategies that will encourage populations of wolves to recover at numbers sufficient to restore ecologically-functioning relationships between wolves and their prey and the other plant and animal species and processes that make up a healthy ecosystem. Wolf numbers should not be capped, and wolves should not be killed to prevent or resolve conflicts (except in defense of human life). As a top predator whose role in nature is a crucial part of the food web — and whose numbers have been vastly reduced by past predator-eradication campaigns — wolves should not be hunted or trapped, and no artificial barriers to their dispersal should be imposed. Collaborative efforts should be conducted by the state wildlife agency, ranchers and nongovernmental organizations to use nonlethal conflict-prevention methods that will keep both wolves and livestock safe; steps should be taken to enhance habitat for wolf prey species such as deer and elk. Critical components of successful wolf recovery are ongoing public education and sufficient monitoring of the wolf population. The state wildlife agency should seek and secure adequate funding to ensure both of these key areas can be implemented.




Gray wolf photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/StoneHorse Studios