Wolves tend to stir up strong emotions from those who regard them as vicious predators and others who see them as magnificent wildlife.
Those feelings were on full display at a hearing Friday night in Sacramento meant to generate public input for a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take the gray wolf off its list of endangered species throughout the lower 48 states.
In some states where the wolves have made a recovery, they are no longer listed as endangered and can be hunted.
In California, a state with no wolves, hundreds packed the hearing room at the Marriott Courtyard Sacramento Cal Expo, some wearing cowboy hats and others sporting caps with wolf ears.
Ranchers, spooked by the yearlong foray of a gray wolf known as OR7 into Northern California from Oregon, told two Fish and Wildlife officials seated on the dais that wolves did not belong near their livestock.
“That’s my livelihood – producing food for you,” rancher Scott Murphy, president of the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District, boomed into the microphone. He said the presence of wolves tended to make cows nervous.
Conservationists said wolves needed continued protection from human hunters.
“I would love to hear wolves howl here again,” Gale Lederer told the officials, her voice breaking with emotion. She said Californians had lived with mountain lions and could also live with wolves.
Applause and jeers greeted the testimony, much of which strayed from the main point of the proposal.
After being all but killed off in the lower 48 states by the 1970s, federal officials contend the gray wolf has recovered in sufficient numbers, mainly in the upper Midwest and the northern Rocky Mountains, to no longer be in danger of extinction.
To remain on the list, a species “needs to be in danger of extinction now,” or likely to become extinct in the future, Gary Frazer, assistant director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the crowd. There are more than 5,000 gray wolves in the contiguous United States, including about 1,700 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and 3,700 in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
To gauge public sentiment for its plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service is holding hearings in four Western cities: Sacramento, Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., and Pinetop, Ariz.
Another part of the proposal involves protecting the tiny number of Mexican wolves – about 75 in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico and 300 in captivity – as an endangered species.
Oregon, where OR7 traveled from, and Washington state have populations of fewer than 50 wolves each.
OR7, tracked via a GPS collar, returned to Oregon in March, but some believe more Oregon wolves could eventually make their way to the far corners of Northern California. That has prompted both concerns from ranchers and a move to enact state protections.
Environmental groups have petitioned the state to protect wolves under the California Endangered Species Act, a separate state law. That petition is still pending.
Officials at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife expect more wolves to eventually disperse into California. They are working on a recovery and management plan for the species.
In the meantime, wolf advocates have been showing up in force at the federal hearings, along with a smaller number of ranchers. About 350 wolf advocates marched from a nearby hotel and dominated a hearing Tuesday in Denver, The Denver Post reported.
The turnout was similar Friday in Sacramento. The ranchers who spoke were often met with skeptical outbursts from the crowd. Those who called on federal officials not to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species received loud applause and cheers.
Hearing officer Mike Chapel had to repeatedly ask for respect and silence from the crowd.
One of the first speakers – Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of American Indians, near Mount Shasta – provoked a loud round of applause after she said that the wolf had long been a spiritual figure for her tribe.
“The wolf is our teacher,” she said, explaining that its extended pack relationships served as an example for human families. She likened the hunting of wolves out of fear to the killing of American Indians.
“It is kind of odd people would be deciding the fate of the wolf,” she said.
Another rancher, Jerry Bacigalupi, said, “Cattle and wolves will not mix.” And Carolyn Laughlin, who lives near the Sutter Buttes, said the sheep raised there are the wolves’ likely prey, should they return to California. “Our sheep, this is their predator,” she said.
The public comment period on the federal plan continues through Dec. 17.