After an absence of nearly a century, we have a wolf in California, a lone 2 1/2-year-old male who's traveled more than 1,000 miles after leaving his pack in Oregon. Since his entry on Dec. 28, he's roamed a couple of hundred miles south of the border, according to the state's Department of Fish and Game, which is tracking the wolf's movements through a GPS transmitting collar.
For one walkabout wolf he carries a lot of baggage. To some ranchers in Northern California, he's a pesky immigrant who threatens their livelihood, albeit more as a harbinger of things to come than any immediate threat. As a lone wolf, he's no match for cattle or larger wild game and will likely feed on carcasses while he remains in the state.
But local ranchers and a few pandering elected officials have him in their cross hairs, saying he ought to be shot on sight. To my mind, this has little to do with any real debate on the pluses and minuses of wolf re-entry, but is more a visceral reaction to big-city environmentalists and their attempts to manage the rural environment, with attendant rules and regulations. It is a reaction more to symbol than to substance.
Wolf OR7 the catchy name given him by wildlife officials is a direct descendant of 66 Canadian wolves who were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s. Now there are an estimated 1,600 wolves in the Southwest, the Northern Rocky Mountain states and Oregon, a far cry from the estimated 200,000 or more that wildlife biologists say once roamed the United States before they were eradicated in the lower 48 by settlers and federal trappers.
Indeed there are wolf advocates who practically worship this predator, seeing the wolf as symbol and martyr of a vanishing wilderness. In this view, OR7's entry is a heartening reminder of the resilience of nature, albeit with a big assist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's reintroduction program.
The removal of wolves, or their reintroduction, reverberates up and down the food chain. By culling deer and elk, new wolf populations help restore vegetation along streambeds, improving habitat for songbirds, beavers and river otters. And by going after weak and old members of deer and elk populations, they help strengthen their stock. Wolves, in other words, are instinctive wilderness restoration specialists.
So the wolves' return to this state offers a litmus test of our commitment to the health of our remaining wildlands. But it goes beyond that. Allowing them to reintroduce themselves would be one more sign that we're moving away from a human-centered view of nature, based on narrow economic interests, and have begun to see ourselves as a part of what might be called the broader economy of nature.
Historically, our narrow focus on mining interests, timber interests and ranching has had devastating impacts on both human and natural economies witness the periodic flooding of Marysville and Yuba City and surrounding farms from a river choked with debris from 19th century hydraulic mining. Or the decimation of our stocks of wild salmon and steelhead from overcutting and overgrazing along streams, and their pollution from agricultural runoff.
That's not to say, in the present case, that the goal of protecting livestock isn't important, especially in ranching country it just shouldn't be the sole focus. Compensation programs for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves are one of the ways that have helped make ranching compatible with a program of wolf re-entry in other states, as have programs developed by Defenders of Wildlife to help ranchers buy electric fencing and guard dogs to keep wolves at bay.
I believe it is possible for ranchers in the Cascade region to be active participants in the inevitable restoration of the wolf to Northern California. By taking a seat at the table with federal and state wildlife officials, sport hunters and environmentalists, they can effectively make sure their interests are incorporated in any re-entry program.
For the past 150 years in Northern California and throughout the West, we've taken it for granted that our desire for land and our narrow economic interest take precedence over the welfare of all other living things and in the case of American Indians, even over some of our own species. The re-entry of the wolf in California and other states represents a step away from this sterile, self-defeating dominance over nature, and toward a broader outlook that places our own welfare in its proper place as an integral part of a larger living world.