It’s been five years since an amazing wolf named OR-7 quietly slipped into California’s portion of the Cascade Range to write the newest chapter of wolf recovery in the West.
This wonderful, wandering male was the first confirmed wolf in California in nearly 90 years. It so happens his arrival on Dec. 28, 2011, was also the anniversary of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The two are intricately linked – but sadly both face uncertain futures.
As Donald Trump’s administration gears up, there are signs the four decades of work to return wolves to parts of their historic range may be in trouble. I’m particularly worried Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., nominated for Interior Department secretary, will help pull the plug on wolf protections.
For the moment, though, it’s worth pausing to celebrate California’s pioneering wolf and the legal protections that enabled his arrival.
After the news broke in late 2011, wolf lovers across the country and the globe followed the journey of OR-7, who left his northeast Oregon pack to trek more than 500 miles to reach Northern California. After 15 months in our state, running another 3,500 miles, he returned to Oregon to establish the Rogue pack.
Earlier this year, trail cameras captured pictures of OR-7’s son in Lassen County, traveling with a female wolf. The pair’s emergence comes after confirmation last year of California’s first wolf family in almost a century, the seven-member Shasta pack.
As a biologist working for nearly two decades on wolf recovery, this all provides proof endangered species protections are working, and absolutely vital, for wolves.
None of this would have occurred without the Endangered Species Act, which stopped decades of persecution that nearly wiped wolves off the map in the lower 48 states. Thanks to those protections, wolves have mounted a successful comeback in limited parts of the country. But we cannot allow protections to be rolled back before they fully recover.
Unfortunately, the federal government eliminated protections in Montana and Idaho, along with more states in the West and Great Lakes region. Since 2011, nearly 4,500 wolves have been killed, causing population declines. Other states are poised to allow aggressive wolf killing if further federal protections are removed.
So, while OR-7’s and the Endangered Species Act’s anniversaries are cause for celebration, we need to remember the ongoing threats to these majestic animals.
Even now in Congress, legislators attach wolf-delisting riders to federal budget bills. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing federal Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in much of the country, including California. And with a Trump administration and Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, the Endangered Species Act itself is in danger of being gutted.
Thankfully, California wants to protect wolves – to a point. The state’s final wolf conservation plan, released this month, has positive points. Yet, once California has two breeding pairs of wolves for only two years, state agency officials could petition the federal government to reduce protections.
The state wolf plan also fails to protect wolves from being mistaken for coyotes and shot. For that, my organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a petition to ban nighttime coyote hunting and lethal traps in portions of Northern California.
Overall, California’s wolf plan is progressive, especially compared with its Northwest neighbors: Oregon stripped state protections from wolves last year, and Washington officials keep rushing into “kill the wolves” as their go-to method of wolf management.
No one said recovering wolves would be easy, but this is a critical moment for the return of wolves along the West Coast. The coming years will determine whether wolf populations can survive and thrive – and finish the chapter OR-7 began five years ago.
Amaroq Weiss is a California-based biologist and former attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.