Petition filed to protect gray wolves in California

Mar 2, 2012

California’s visiting gray wolf has created a stir, not only with ranchers and media outlets, but also with conservation groups hoping to get the ball rolling on wolf protection laws in the state.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and three other conservation groups petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission last week to protect gray wolves as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. Wolves, which are not currently protected under the state law, were absent from the state from 1924 until late in 2011 when a wolf from Oregon made a thousand-mile journey to northern California.

According to the group’s press release, “It has lived there since.”

Gray wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in portions of their range, including California. But the petition is calling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with implementing ESA, to develop a recovery plan for wolves in California. Such a plan would specify management actions needed to protect and recover the species and establish population targets.

The petition documents that wolves once roamed most of California and adds that scientists estimate there is still extensive habitat for wolves in both northern California and the Sierra Nevada areas, despite California’s booming population.

Between crossing the border from Canada and efforts to reintroduce them into Yellowstone National Park, wolf populations have continued to grow in the northern Rocky Mountains, Oregon and Washington. The wolf known as OR-7 arrived in California in December, from a pack that was formed in 2008 when wolves moved from Idaho to the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon.

It is no secret that as wolf populations continue to grow, it is likely that more wolves will travel back to California, and according to the groups, it is long past due.

“The return of wolves to California will help restore the natural balance and reverse the historic wrong done by people who shot, poisoned and persecuted wolves into oblivion,” said the CBD’s director, Noah Greenwald.

CBD was joined in the petition by Big Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

According to the California Department of Fish and Game, they are already preparing for the wolves’ return. Department officials told the media that they have been meeting with ranchers and environmental groups and are working on a management plan that was begun before the wolf even crossed the border.

“We are really trying to be proactive,” said Karen Kovacs, the wildlife program manager in the northern region the wolf is roaming. “We’ve asked for additional funds that would dedicate staff to focus solely on wolf management, but it depends on what the governor believes is most important. We have water and fish issues in this state, too.”

The petition says that growing populations in Oregon and the Washington Cascades mean “wolves are likely to continue to naturally disperse to California, and to establish a breeding population.” It cites a 2001 study that claims that the northeast corner of California could support as many as 470 wolves.

The famous OR-7 was originally a member of a pack that crossed into Oregon, where 24 now live. The wolf has become a media sensation, complete with a naming contest, where he was dubbed, “Journey.”

His fame has come complete with a Twitter account, putting him up there with the likes of Babe and Bambi. His Twitter profile reads: “Native Oregonian, now living in California. Grew up in troubled family. Daddy wanted by the law. Hobbies: wandering, ungulates. Don’t call me Journey.”

In Oregon, two members of his Imnaha pack have bounties on their heads, including OR-7’s father, because they’ve developed a taste for cattle. Conservation groups sued the state after the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued the kill order. A judge granted a stay after wildlife advocates argued that the pack would die out.

While OR-7’s time in the California media spotlight has been relatively uneventful, many ranchers believe it is only a matter of time and with over 500,000 head of cattle grazing across California, now is the time for producers to be proactive. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor