First wolf enters California amid management concerns

Feb 3, 2012

Following a month´s long sojourn across Oregon, the wolf designated OR-7 by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials has become the first verified member of the species to enter California in nearly 90 years. A lone male, OR-7, dispersed from northeast Oregon’s Imnaha pack last year and gained national media attention as he traveled across that state before crossing into northern California’s Siskiyou County on Dec 28. Fitted with a GPS collar, the wolf has since been located in both Shasta and Lassen counties.

According to Mark Stopher, environmental program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), the arrival is not entirely unexpected, although it was not expected to occur for a few more years. “We had anticipated we’d have a wolf here in the next few years,” says Stopher. “I think we were a little bit surprised by OR-7; he’s quite a traveler.” According to the GPS data, OR-7 traveled over 700 miles in Oregon after leaving the Imnaha pack and has logged an additional 470 miles since entering California. Despite the early arrival, Stopher indicates that California officials have been watching wolf expansion, and the resulting controversies, in other western states for a number of years. “We started working on wolf planning a little over two years ago,” he says. “Given the experience in the Rocky Mountain states, both the complexity of the issue and the controversy associated with it, we thought that we would be better served by having done some homework.”

Despite this preparation, California does not currently have a written wolf management plan, a deficiency that concerned stakeholders feel should be addressed in the near future. “Since OR-7 entered California, we’ve met with environmental, agricultural, and sportsmen’s groups separately,” says Stopher. “One of the things we’ve heard from all of those organizations is that we ought to be working on a wolf management plan for the future. Not to manage one wolf, but to manage whatever population we might see down the line.”

As in western Oregon and Washington, wolves in California are currently protected by federal Endangered Species Act regulations. That status, however, is currently under review by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it is uncertain when or if federal restrictions will be lifted in those areas. According to Stopher, the next step in California is to bring concerned organizations from all sides of the issue to a single meeting. “The first step is stakeholder outreach,” he says. There’s no point in building something in silence.”

For ranchers in the three northeastern counties, the presence of one wolf is not viewed as a significant threat. It does, however, raise concerns over how the species will be handled as more make their way south. “One wolf is a curiosity,” says California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) Treasurer Jack Hanson. “I don’t know anyone here who’s panicked by it. However, it portends a future that I think we need to be cautious of.” Hanson’s ranch lies in Lassen County, just 20 miles from OR-7’s last reported location, the same county, ironically, that was home to California’s last known wolf which was harvested in 1924. “A pack of wolves could be a threat to ranchers in the area,” he says, “and multiple packs would be a significant problem.”

Overabundance of wolves, however, is not a concern shared by CDFA. Only one model was created to estimate the number of wolves that would eventually reside in California.

Based upon habitat and prey availability, it predicts just 500-600 wolves statewide. Stopher feels that even that estimate may be generous. “Personally, I’m skeptical that we’ll ever have that many wolves in California,” he says. “While we have a lot of deer, they’re scattered up and down the state, while wolves will only be at the top.” He also points out that California has a very small resident elk population, relative to the Rocky Mountain states. “Prey availability in California is not what it is in other western states. Our experience in the Rockies is that wolves tend to avoid people and roads,” adds Stopher, pointing out that both are in great abundance in California. Detractors from the predictive model, however, point out that with roughly 620,000 cattle resident in California, lack of prey may not be a significant constraint on wolf expansion.

Ranchers are also concerned about more subtle effects that may be felt as a result of even a few wolves in a region. For example, as a result of their protected status, the arrival of wolves could lead to a temporary cessation of trapping for other predators, a step which Hanson points out could lead to an increase in problems with coyotes and other predatory species. Ranchers in other states have noted that the mere presence of wolves can lead to significant decreases in conception rates and calf weights, resulting from added stress. Such losses are not easily measured, but can be significant. “That wolf may not be dragging down a live calf,” points out Hanson, “but there are other ancillary effects that do concern us.”

While Hanson and CCA are openly against the return of wolves to California, he and the other officers indicate that they will be ready to meet and discuss management with CDFG when the time comes. “We do not welcome the reintroduction of any predator, whether by man or nature,” says Hanson. “But if it’s going to happen, we’ve got to be at the table with CD- FG. We want to be involved as they develop a management strategy.” In discussions with ranchers and environmentalists concerning the issue, Stopher says he has been impressed by the pragmatism displayed by both groups, and by their willingness to communicate despite being adversaries. “The consistency between different groups has been instructive,” he says. “They are uniformly insistent that, whatever decision is made in California, it is made with the very best available information.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent