The Return of Gray Wolves to California

When the famous wandering wolf known as OR-7 “stepped paw” into California in late December 2011, making him the first known wild wolf in the state in nearly 90 years, my work for Defenders of Wildlife took an unexpected turn. With the nearest population of gray wolves living in seemingly far away northeastern Oregon, I never previously thought I would have the opportunity to work on the conservation of such an iconic species — and one that stirs emotions in just about everyone, regardless of their position on the issue.

As a Defenders of Wildlife staffer, it’s natural to learn about wolves and their conservation story. My understanding of wolf management grew exponentially through my years of participation in the Wolf Stakeholder Working Group convened by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assist and advise the Department in drafting our state’s first wolf conservation and management plan. So, when I was invited to give a talk on the return of gray wolves to California as part of local “Nature and You” lecture series, I jumped at the chance.

To tell the story of how gray wolves made their comeback to the Golden State, one must start back in the mid-1990s, when an historic reintroduction effort took place over the course of two years. Sixty-six gray wolves were captured in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, and released in Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness of central Idaho. An epic experiment, it is now recognized as one of the biggest success stories of the federal Endangered Species Act — bringing wolves back from the brink of extinction in the vast and rugged northern Rocky Mountains.

Once common throughout much of North America, wolves were extirpated, or driven to localized extinction, through bounties and predator control efforts in most areas of the contiguous United States by the mid-1930s. The first documented wolf bounty in North America was passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and the spread of bounties closely paralleled the westward expansion of human civilization across the continent. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that the last known wolf bounty in North America, in Ontario, Canada, wasn’t repealed until 1972!

Gray wolves have expanded since their reintroduction and inhabit much of Alaska, Canada, and parts of Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, with occasional sightings in Colorado and Utah. A few years ago, a single individual made it all the way down to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona before being mistaken for a coyote and shot in Utah. The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, is found only in a relatively limited area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The red wolf which is an entirely different species, is currently only found in a small part of eastern North Carolina.

Since that fated day in late 2011, gray wolves call California their home, too. In 2015, the Shasta Pack became the Golden State’s first known wolf family since the species was decimated in the mid-1920s. Late 2015 brought the news that there was also a “wolf-like canid” discovered in western Lassen County, which was confirmed to be a female gray wolf the following year. Seemingly against all odds, she found a mate and in the spring of 2017, the pair had a litter of pups and established the Lassen Pack. These and all wolves in California are protected as “endangered” under both the federal and California endangered species acts.

Wolves are a reproductively successful species. They can grow their population numbers and increase the area they occupy largely based on the level of tolerance humans have for them. Where wolves have been delisted, aggressive hunting seasons and other legal killing by anti-wolf interests limit the species’ ability to thrive without persecution. These aggressive management regimes may reduce populations so much that wolves cannot adequately disperse to unoccupied areas of their historical range, such as northern California, western Oregon, western Washington or Colorado.

It’s critical that we move beyond the myths about wolves as evil creatures of folklore. Sure, they’re apex predators, carnivores — and they make a living by killing other animals in order to eat and survive. But wolves are also generally timid creatures, and most will run from humans before we even know they’re anywhere near us. With an estimated 65,000 gray wolves living in the U.S. and Canada, and millions of humans sharing the same landscape, you’d think that wolf-human conflicts would be relatively common. Well, they’re not. There are only two documented cases of gray wolves killing humans in North America in recent history: one was a jogger in Alaska and the other was a hiker in Saskatchewan, and even that last case is not 100% verified, as some believe the hiker was actually killed by a grizzly bear.

A key to wolf survival is human tolerance. Most of the wolf’s bad rap comes from the myths and fairy tales that we hear from the time we are little. The fact that wolves sometimes choose to kill livestock as an easy meal doesn’t help. This is why Defenders works to further coexistence between people and wolves throughout the country is so important. We work with ranchers to minimize wolf-livestock interactions, encouraging wolves to select their natural ungulate prey of deer and elk instead of domesticated livestock. We continue to host workshops to give ranchers as many options as possible to keep their livestock safe; we don’t want to see livestock killed because of wolves and we don’t want to see wolves persecuted due to conflicts with livestock.

With the recent news of a new wolf roaming northern California — OR-54, a female who is a direct descendent of that famous wandering wolf, OR-7 — there is continued hope that gray wolves will continue to search out new territories that suit their needs for survival. Only human tolerance and time will tell if they stick around for future generations.

-Pamela