By 1924, wolves in California had been completely driven from the lands that they called home for centuries – hunted, trapped and slaughtered to near-extinction.
Now it looks like wolves are finally making their way back home to the Golden State where they belong. California is graced with rich areas of suitable habitat that can and will support a healthy wolf population, and wolves clearly want to return.
Having trekked last summer in a remote part of Siskiyou County where the now-famous wolf OR-7 traversed – and where officials announced last week a second gray wolf was spotted – I can see why wolves would choose to inhabit this rugged, wild part of our state. And I strongly believe they will – it’s just a matter of time and human tolerance.
Wolves are one of America’s most iconic species, but until recently, we were in grave danger of losing them in the lower 48 states. Thankfully, people have finally begun to see that without wolves, the ecological health of our landscapes suffers. Today, 83 percent of California voters believe that “wolves should be protected” and “are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”
In protecting gray wolves, it appears California is headed in the right direction. In June 2014, the state Fish and Game Commission voted to shield them under the state Endangered Species Act.
Despite the state’s support, some people still believe in the fables of the “big bad wolf.” Many don’t know about the true lives of wolves, the strong social bonds they nurture within their familial packs, or their important role in the natural world. They also don’t know that California’s extensive ranching industry can coexist with returning wolves, given the right tools.
So it is up to Californians to ensure that wolves are indeed welcome, and to provide protections as they make their way toward recovery. The state must avoid the mistakes in places such as the Southwest and in the Northern Rockies, where the first reaction is to kill as many wolves as possible instead of seeking solutions that protect both livestock and wolves.
California has the opportunity to forge new partnerships to reduce potential conflicts. Lawmakers, conservation professionals, local officials and private landowners should cooperate to help ranchers use proven, nonlethal methods – including specialized fencing, range riders and guard dogs – and develop even more innovative ones. This focus on “coexistence” should be a key part of the final wolf management plan adopted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife has a long history of working with ranchers in other parts of the West. I have seen firsthand the success of these efforts, such as on the Wood River Wolf Project in central Idaho, where wolves have successfully shared habitat with the highest concentration of sheep grazing on public lands in the state. We’re ready to work with the ranching community to bring these successful tools to California.
California, along with Oregon and Washington state, has an important role to play in setting the standard for managing wolves in a more principled, ethical and sustainable manner, avoiding the ruinous path followed by other western states where slaughtering wolves is considered wildlife management. I believe California can lead the way to peaceful wolf restoration and recovery.
Pamela Flick of Sacramento is California representative for Defenders of Wildlife.