Tensions rise on the range after wolf kills cow in California for the first time in a century

One of the pups in the Lassen Pack
One of the pups in the Lassen Pack California Department of Fish and Wildlife

A wolf has killed a California rancher’s cow for the first time in more than 100 years, raising tensions in the newly reclaimed wolf country in California’s rugged northeastern corner.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed that a member of the so-called Lassen Pack killed a heifer Oct. 13 on private property in western Lassen County. Data from a GPS collar worn by the pack’s breeding female showed it had been on-site for at least six hours the night the 600-pound yearling was killed. Wildlife officials said wolves were seen at the carcass the following morning.

When state wildlife officers were investigating the kill, the wolf hung close, on a forested slope a few hundred yards away.

“The location and nature of the bite marks and the significant associated tissue hemorrhaging are consistent with attacks by wolves,” the wildlife agency said in a report posted on its website. “Many of the bite marks penetrated tissues to a depth of approximately 1.5 inches.”

Ranchers, already anxious about the threat from wolves since the endangered animals returned to Northern California in 2011, criticized Fish and Wildlife for not announcing the confirmed kill. The incident didn’t get widely publicized until the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen’s Association issued a press release Friday.

“It’s important for Californians to understand the full implications of the wolf’s return,” Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said in a written statement. “CDFW has been more than willing to notify the public when it identifies a new pack or when wolves have pups. People need to recognize wolves not as cute woodland creatures but as predators that kill.”

State wildlife officials said they hid nothing – the kill had been announced on the DFW’s website and on a blog where the department shares news about California’s wolves.

The Cattlemen’s Association said area ranchers suspect the Lassen Pack also attacked four other calves belonging to the same rancher last month. The state investigated those incidents, ruled out wolves in three of the deaths but said the fourth was a “possible” wolf kill. In the fourth instance, confirmation was impossible because so much of the carcass had been eaten.

In an interview with the Lassen County Times, the rancher, Wally Roney, said he was sure the wolf pack killed all five of the livestock. He said he’s considering moving from Lassen County after the attacks.

“That’s the reason we have the property up here, so we can use it,” Roney told the paper. “Now all of sudden we’re finding, no, we can’t use it. We can’t afford to feed the wolves.”

But Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jordan Traverso said the agency warned Roney about the threat from wolves – and tried to help.

“With this producer, we made it clear that the wolves were frequenting the site where his cows were,” Traverso said in an email. “We offered the producer non-lethal assistance/tools. The producer declined. One of our employees even volunteered to camp out there to do what he could to dissuade the wolves from using the meadow. Though the producer initially declined that offer, he eventually agreed to it, and our employee started making plans to camp. However, the wolves left the site that day and did not return for nine days, effectively making camping unnecessary.”

An environmentalist who has advocated for the California wolf population dismissed ranchers’ concerns.

“I don’t see how it could set back our cause if one is a thinking individual,” said Amaroq Weiss, the wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group that has pushed to get more species listed as endangered.

Although livestock die from numerous causes, “we know that there will occasionally be predations of livestock,” she said.

She and other wolf advocates say such kills are rare, especially if ranchers take steps to keep the animals away. Weiss said livestock owners have to take “common-sense” precautions if they know wolves are in the area. These include making sure the livestock stay together for protection. In addition, ranchers must quickly dispose of the carcasses of livestock that die from other causes; otherwise those carcasses can act as lures for wolves, she said.

Livestock experts said cattle tend to be hardy animals. Ranchers will lose no more than 2 percent of the herd each year to respiratory illnesses and other issues, said Carissa Koopmann Rivers, a University of California cooperative extension specialist.

Wildlife officials announced the discovery of the Lassen Pack in July. It was the second known family of wolves found in Northern California in 90 years, following the Shasta Pack in 2015.

The Lassen Pack has been considered particularly significant because the father of the Lassen pups is the son of OR-7, the lone wolf who sparked a media frenzy when he crossed from Oregon into Northern California six years ago and spent several years in the north state. He was the first wolf seen in California since they were eradicated by humans by the 1920s.

Environmentalists say the wolves are simply returning to their natural habitat. Ranchers disagree – and have gone to court to try to prove it. The state farm bureau and Cattlemen’s Association sued the Fish and Game Commission earlier this year, challenging the agency’s decision to list the gray wolf under the state’s Endangered Species Act.

Their argument: The law only applies to native species, not visitors from other states. Environmentalists fiercely disagree, and have sought to have the case dismissed. State biologists say gray wolves were native to California.

Ranchers say the special protections for wolves didn’t just make it illegal to kill a wolf under any circumstances, it also hamstrung their ability to take other kinds of nonlethal action.

“You can’t even chase them away on a four-wheeler because that’s considered ‘pursuit’ – it’s an illegal task under the California Endangered Species Act,” Cattlemen’s Association President Dave Daley said in an interview. “The problem is ... there’s no management for wolves. ... If there’s no control, obviously they’re going to populate. We’re concerned about how far and how wide that will occur and how quickly.”

The state has no mechanism to compensate ranchers when their animals are killed. Daley said some ranchers aren’t fans of how such compensation programs have worked in other states. Those states often won’t pay out because wolf kills are notoriously difficult to confirm. When payments are made, Daley said, they tend to under-compensate ranchers for the loss.

Ranchers said the heifer killed by the wolves likely was worth about $850 if sold today, but its true value is much harder to calculate since a fully grown cow might have multiple generations of offspring, whose value could equate to tens of thousands of dollars.

Ranchers say just having a wolf pack close to their herds is bad for their bottom line. They say wolf packs stress out cattle, cause them to breed less frequently, and they lose valuable weight.

Traverso, the DFW spokeswoman, said it’s understandable that ranchers don’t like wolves, but her agency needs their cooperation.

“We believe it would be more constructive to have them at the table working with us, not against us,” she said.

Since they made their return to rural Oregon and California, wolves killing livestock has become a major source of stress among the ranchers whose range cattle graze in the vast rural forests and high deserts of the two states.

In November 2015, Siskiyou County ranchers spotted the Shasta Pack eating a calf. The state declared it a “probable” wolf kill. Officials said the calf may have died through other means, and the wolves may have merely scavenged the carcass. But the incident put cattle ranchers on edge.

Wolf advocates say they’re troubled by recent wolf poaching cases in areas where cattle graze.

Last fall a female gray wolf with ties to the Shasta Pack was found dead in a national forest near Summer Lake, Ore. Federal wildlife officials and the Center for Biological Diversity offered cash rewards for information leading to the killer.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered a $5,000 reward for information into the death of another wolf, a male gray who was found shot to death in April northwest of Klamath Falls, Ore. The service said killing the gray wolf was a violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Five environmental groups contributed to the offer, making the total reward $15,500.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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