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 are vital for regulating prey populations like deer and elk, helping many other species. By forcing elk to move more, for example, wolves can 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 1947.


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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 so they aren't exterminated again. In fact, when a wild wolf called OR-7, or “Journey,” reached California in late 2011, some county commissioners said wolves should be shot on sight — even vowing to do it themselves.

That's why the Center 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 so much work to do for West Coast wolves. Although wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes have met with success, wolves in the lower 48 states still occupy only about 10% of their historic habitat. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated it intends to remove federal protections for wolves across nearly the entire lower 48 states, including the West Coast. If the United States is going to continue recovering its wolf population, it needs the West Coast — 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, among other wolf-related West Coast alliances, the Center is working with conservation groups across the region to make sure wolves keep needed protections at the state and federal level.

WASHINGTON

The first reliable reports of wolves returning to Washington came in 2002. By the end of 2019, Washington had 108 confirmed wolves with 21 packs in the eastern and central portions of the state, which are managed by the state wildlife agency. There were an estimated 37 wolves with 5 packs in parts of the state managed by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. 

Scientists have identified several additional wild areas in Washington where wolves could live, including the Olympic Peninsula. To date no wolf packs occupy western Washington.

In 2011 Congress stripped federal protections from wolves in the eastern third of the state. All Washington’s wolves remain protected under the state's Endangered Species Act. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2011, and even though wolf recovery is still in its infancy, the state wildlife agency has begun steps to prepare a revised plan for when wolves are state-delisted.

In each year's legislative session, wolf-related bills are introduced and the Center works with allies to defeat harmful bills and win passage of bills that help wolf recovery. We continue to push the state to adopt enforceable, transparent regulations for wolf recovery and conservation. These must ensure accountability by the state wildlife agency and livestock operators to prioritize and properly implement nonlethal conflict-prevention methods, so killing wolves for livestock conflicts is a measure of last resort. We've taken strong action in state court to block attempts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to kill wolves in response to conflicts with livestock, and to shine a light on these “management” actions that are counter to best available science, which concludes that killing wolves to stop conflicts is counterproductive.

Repeated agency wolf-killing in Washington is also costly and counters the wishes of the vast majority of residents. They believe coexisting with wildlife is right and possible and have expressed public outrage. Meanwhile the Center and allies alert our supporters and the scientific community to weigh in with the state wildlife agency, with the commission that oversees that agency, and with the governor. These efforts have borne fruit: In September 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee wrote to the director of the state’s wildlife agency, declaring that the repeated annual killing of wolves in northeast Washington is “simply unacceptable” and directing the agency to find new ways to manage livestock–wolf conflicts nonlethally.

The Center continues to monitor and challenge Washington wildlife agency actions based on politics rather than on science and what’s best for wolves.


OREGON

Wolves started returning to Oregon in 1999, with its first pack established in 2008. By the end of 2019, a total of 158 wolves in 22 packs with 19 breeding pairs were confirmed. All but three of the packs are in northeastern Oregon.

In June 2014 the wolf known as OR-7 — who made California part of his range for more than two years but then returned to Oregon — had found a mate and sired pups in southwestern Oregon, becoming the first known wolf family in western Oregon in nearly 70 years. Since their territory is in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest near the Oregon–California border, OR-7's pack was officially named the Rogue pack. His pack produced litters every year from 2014 to 2018, and at least three of OR-7’s pups made their way into California, too. There are now two additional wolf families confirmed in western Oregon: the White River pack and the Indigo pack. Though wolves are starting to make their way into western Oregon, they're still 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, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission prematurely stripped wolves of state endangered species act protections, and in 2019 the commission approved revisions to the state wolf plan, which unfortunately set the bar low for when wolves can be killed for conflicts with livestock and which opened the door to hunting and trapping of wolves.

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. A 2011 lawsuit we filed with allies challenged the state for rushing to kill wolves in violation of the state’s wolf plan; this resulted in a court injunction blocking the killing of wolves for livestock conflicts. 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. Following our lawsuit wolves had stronger protections in Oregon, now a model of people coexisting well with wolves and allowing them to reestablish. The state’s delisting of wolves and revisions to its wolf plan are unfortunate steps backward — attempts to appease ranching and hunting groups that would prefer to stop Oregon's wolf recovery in its tracks.

Due to the Center and allies’ strong pushback against agency wolf-killing to resolve conflicts, Oregon last year hired several conflict specialists to help livestock owners proactively use nonlethal methods to prevent conflicts. As a result the 2019 wolf population grew, conflicts declined, and the agency killed no wolves. We’re still fighting for their full recovery in the state and regionwide.

CALIFORNIA

Gray wolves started their return to California in December 2011, when wolf OR-7 — a 2 ½ -year-old radio-collared wolf from Oregon — crossed into California. He became the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in 87 years. 

Leaving Oregon's Imnaha pack, OR-7 traveled more than 700 miles from northeastern Oregon to California's Siskiyou County. After nearly 15 months exploring seven different Northern California counties, he traveled back to Oregon in March 2013 but returned to California several more times that year and the next, clearly including California in his range. Overall he traveled 4,000-plus miles, earning the nickname “Journey.” 

To protect OR-7 and any wolves who might follow him, two months after he entered California the Center and allies petitioned to grant them state Endangered Species Act safeguards — which petitioners won in 2014 after an extensive public process. That same date, agency officials confirmed that OR-7 and a mate had denned in southern Oregon and produced puppies. Though OR-7 and his mate stayed in Oregon, where they became known as the Rogue Pack, they had more pups annually for the next four years, at least three of which have entered California.

The next step for wolf recovery in California came in August 2015 when, for the first time in at least 100 years, biologists documented a wolf family in Siskiyou County. Named the Shasta pack by state agency staff, the all-black wolf family consisted of one breeding pair and their five pups. Their presence confirmed that California is wolf country and can support recovery of this magnificent native species. Unfortunately, implicated in livestock conflicts, just months later the pack disappeared. One Shasta pup was seen in Nevada afterward, but nobody knows his current whereabouts and many fear the pack was poached.

During 2015–2018 several more Oregon wolves entered California. Some returned home while others remained, including one of OR-7’s 2014 offspring. This young male met a female wolf who’d wandered into California from the northern Rockies. They formed the Lassen pack, California’s only known existing pack, which ranges across Lassen and Plumas counties and had pups in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Its breeding male has since disappeared, but the female has been seen occasionally with a different male.

Another OR-7 pup from his 2014 litter was seen in California in early 2017 but not since. OR-7’s third known offspring to come to California was a radio-collared nearly-2-year-old female known as OR-54, who came in January 2018 and covered almost 9,000 miles in Northern California for nearly two years before, tragically, she was found dead. One more lone Oregon wolf, called OR-59, entered California in late 2018 and was illegally killed one week after his arrival. Many fear OR-54 met the same fate.

In 2016 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released its Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, crafted over two years with a stakeholder advisory group, public input and scientific peer review. Some aspects of the plan provide strong protections for wolves, while others fall far short.

The next year Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of several California livestock industry associations, filed a baseless lawsuit to overturn wolves’ state protections. The Center and allies filed to intervene, in 2019 saving those safeguards.

In April 2020 Oregon biologists announced that OR-7, whose radio collar stopped working in 2015, hadn’t been seen since October 2019. He probably died of old age. Nearly 11 years old, he lived about twice as long as most wild wolves and left a lasting legacy.

The Center is still advocating for nonlethal human coexistence with wolves, and we'll never stop fighting for their full protections and recovery.

Gray wolf photo courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife