It was a moment worth celebrating – the discovery of a rare wolf pack in rural Northern California, including three pups.
But if you raise cattle – or maybe you’re a beef eater sympathetic to ranchers – it was reason for anxiety and resentment.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s detection of a small wolf pack in Lassen County, announced Wednesday, set off another round of debate and finger-pointing between ranchers and environmentalists over the presence of wild predators in rural areas.
Ranchers such as Dave Cowley, who encountered a different wolf pack circling his herd of heifers in Siskiyou County two years ago, said Thursday that environmentalists and urban Californians don’t grasp the threat posed by wolves to their livelihoods.
“It’s a lifetime of work,” said Cowley, who was able to pull the heifers away from the wolves. “To have a wolf pack come in and destroy it, and to have environmentalists cheer, it’s disappointing.” He said he fears that the wolf population will continue to grow.
Fish and Wildlife announced that it fitted a tracking collar onto a 75-pound adult female wolf June 30, and confirmed that the wolf and her mate produced at least three pups this year. Officials have been searching for the adults since last summer, when they were first spotted on camera.
The so-called Lassen Pack is the second known family of wolves found in Northern California in 90 years, following the discovery of the Shasta Pack in 2015. Of special significance is that the father of the Lassen Pack pups is the son of OR7, the lone wolf who became an international media sensation when he crossed from Oregon into Northern California in 2011 and wandered for years before returning to Oregon. OR7 was the first wolf seen in California in decades.
“It’s a big deal because these wolves are making their way home,” said Pamela Flick of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “This is natural habitat for them.”
Ranchers say this is no homecoming, however. In a case filed by Sacramento’s Pacific Legal Foundation, the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau sued the California Fish and Game Commission earlier this year, challenging its decision to list the gray wolf as endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act.
Their argument: The Endangered Species Act only applies to native species, not visitors from other states. Listing them as endangered makes it harder for ranchers to protect their livestock, the suit added.
“You can’t harass them, you can’t shoot them,” said rancher Pam Giacomini, who owns about 1,700 head of cattle in Lassen and Shasta counties. “We’re probably OK managing around them, but if somebody becomes a killer, nobody has an answer.”
Wolves lived in California until they were eradicated about a century ago, but a Department of Fish and Wildlife report says it’s hard to determine how large the population was. “Their historical abundance and distribution are poorly understood and not verifiable,” the report said. “While there are many anecdotal reports of wolves in California, specimens were rarely preserved. ... Wolves were likely killed to control predation on other animals. Other factors, including hunting, may also have contributed to their extirpation from California.”
The wolves’ presence feeds rural Californians’ frustration with state government, which they believe has little regard for their economic problems and way of life. Such resentments have helped fuel the State of Jefferson movement, which calls for Republican-leaning counties of Northern California to form their own state.
Commenting on The Sacramento Bee’s first story about the Lassen Pack discovery, one Facebook user wrote, “I know I could use a nice rug.” Two wrote, “SSS,” which is shorthand for “Shoot, shovel, shut up.”
Cowley, the rancher from Siskiyou County, said he thinks someone is deliberately planting the wolves in Northern California. He doesn’t know who.
“These are expensive cow herds,” he said. “What have the wolves given us? Why are these people so irrationally exuberant about this?”
Flick, however, said environmentalists do care about protecting livestock from wolves. She said Defenders of Wildlife has worked with rancher groups on “coexistence strategies.” Among other things, her group has received a grant to train ranch employees on how to look for wolf tracks, scat and other clues on their land.
“We call them range riders,” she said.
The status of wolves has become a point of friction in other states as well. The shooting of a rare white wolf on the north side of Yellowstone National Park in Montana in May became a national media story. Although hunting wolves is legal outside the park, the animals are protected when they’re inside the park boundaries.