Ten years ago, the idea of gray wolves in California was a faraway dream. At the time, there were fewer than 1,000 wolves across the entire Western United States most of them safely tucked away in the forests of central Idaho, northwest Montana and Yellowstone National Park.
Since then weve seen wolves reclaim more of their former habitat. At the end of last year, there were nearly 2,000 wolves in the West, including almost 100 wolves in the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon.
Miraculously, at the very end of 2011, a lone male wolf even crossed into California. The wolf, known officially as OR-7 and nicknamed Journey, is the first wolf known to have set foot in the state since the 1940s.
OR-7 lingered for more than a year before returning to Oregon. Yet his presence in California stirred the imagination of wolf advocates and the fears of wolf haters alike. The possibility of wild wolves once again roaming Northern California suddenly became very real. As a result, California Department of Fish and Wildlife started making plans in case more wolves return.
But the chance of wolves permanently returning and surviving in California is quickly diminishing. In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to abandon wolf recovery across most of the lower 48, including eliminating federal Endangered Species Act protections for any wolves that arrive in the Golden State. Without federal resources and support, its questionable whether California will be able to sustain long-term recovery efforts for this important missing part of its natural heritage.
Who cares if wolves ever return to California? According to a recent poll sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife, 69percent of Californians support restoring wolves to suitable habitat in the state. Importantly, 80percent of respondents also agreed that wolves should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act until they are fully recovered.
Thats because Californians understand the potential benefits that wolves can bring to the ecosystems they inhabit. In the same poll, 73percent agreed that wolves play an important role in maintaining healthy elk and deer populations and that restoring wolves to forests and wilderness areas will bring a healthier balance to the ecosystem.
This has certainly been the case in places like Yellowstone National Park, where the return of wolves has brought a number of positive environmental changes. Wolves keep elk and deer on the move and away from sensitive river areas where streamside vegetation had been destroyed by decades of overbrowsing. Now, aspen, willow and cottonwood trees are flourishing in creek bottoms in Yellowstone National Park, providing additional food, shelter and shade for beavers, songbirds and fish.
But theres more to wolves than just filling a vital ecological niche. For many, this iconic species represents the very essence of the wild that which cannot be controlled and keeps us humble as human beings at a time when our dominion over the planet is nearly absolute. Thats why more than 80 percent of Californians agree that wolves should be protected in the state and are a vital part of Americas wilderness and heritage.
Wildlife conservation and protecting our precious natural resources must be guided first and foremost by sound science, rather than by political convenience. So when 16 of our nations top biologists wrote a letter in May questioning Fish and Wildlife Services decision to abandon wolf recovery, it should give us all pause. Why is the federal government so anxious to throw in the towel?
We did not stop fighting for bald eagles until they were soaring in the skies from coast to coast. We did not quit protecting American alligators until they once again occupied suitable habitat from Texas to the Carolinas. And we shouldnt abandon wolves when they only occupy less than 10percent of their historic range and about a third of currently suitable habitat nationwide.
I think we can do better. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hosting a public hearing in Sacramento to hear what Californians think about the federal delisting proposal. Please consider attending the hearing to voice your support for continued wolf recovery. This is one of only three public hearings nationwide and the only one on the West Coast perhaps our last chance to make a difference and ensure that having wolves in California doesnt become a forgotten dream.
Jamie Rappaport Clark is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. She was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997-2001.