The lone gray wolf sighted in Siskiyou County this spring wasn’t quite so lonesome as it once appeared.
On Thursday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released photos of five wolf pups with a pair of adults, one of them thought to be the wolf seen in the spring. It is the first confirmed sighting of a gray wolf pack in modern California history.
The development caught state biologists by surprise – and they’re now scrambling to revise and finalize a wolf-management plan that had been under development since another gray wolf, known as OR7, wandered into California from Oregon in late 2011. OR7’s arrival marked the state’s first confirmed wolf sighting since 1924. At the time, biologists said it was only a matter of time before wolves became established in California – but they didn’t expect it to be so soon.
“They have beat us to the punch on a couple of occasions now,” Eric Loft, chief of the department’s wildlife branch, told reporters Thursday during a phone briefing.
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Thursday’s announcement followed news last month that trail cameras set out by state biologists had photographed a lone wolf – not OR7 – near McCloud in May and July. The agency set out additional cameras in the same area. That resulted in multiple photos showing the five pups and two adults.
The entire pack has black fur. The pups appear to be about 4 months old and weigh 35 to 40 pounds. Given their proximity to Mount Shasta, state officials are calling the family “the Shasta Pack.”
“This news is exciting for California,” Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham said in a prepared statement. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state, and it appears now is the time.”
Not everyone is as thrilled.
OR7’s travels in California prompted fierce debate about how to manage wolves in the state. Amid opposition from some hunting and ranching groups, the Fish and Game Commission voted last year to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act.
Hunters and ranchers continue to argue that the state needs broad flexibility to manage the species. Hunters contend wolves could deplete their traditional prey, including elk and deer. Ranchers worry state regulations limit their options for protecting livestock.
Mary and Jim Rickert, who own Prather Ranch in the Siskiyou County town of Macdoel, graze their steers on rangeland in Siskiyou, Shasta and Tehama counties. The pack’s arrival, they said, puts their livestock – and livelihood – at risk. The couple said they would like the state to set up a fund to compensate ranchers for the inevitable wolf-kills.
“If the public wants wolves,” Jim Rickert said, “maybe they should support the people that are helping feed the wolves.”
Karen Kovacs, Fish and Wildlife’s point person on wolves, said the pack so far has left alone the livestock grazing in its territory, a checkerboard of public forests and private timber holdings. Wolf advocates maintain that livestock losses in other states where wolves have been re-established are generally minimal, and can be offset by management techniques and reimbursement programs for losses suffered by ranchers.
The pack’s territory is difficult to access, crisscrossed by unpaved logging roads and private timber holdings blocked by locked gates, Even so, state officials have declined to provide the family’s exact location, concerned someone might to try to find the animals, either as sightseers or to harm them.
Given the endangered species protection for wolves, anyone caught killing one in California – even a rancher protecting livestock – could face prison time and fines. The only exception is if a wolf poses a direct threat to a person. Kovacs said incidents of “illegal take” of wolves have been rare since U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in 1995 began reintroducing wolves into the Rocky Mountains.
One of the questions for biologists is whether the pack is related to OR7. They look substantially different – while OR7 is gray, the Shasta Pack members have black fur with splotches of brown.
When OR7 arrived in California in December 2011, scientists speculated that he had left his home pack in northeast Oregon in search of a mate. He spent much of 2012 wandering northeastern California in a meandering path that eventually covered thousands of miles. He returned to Oregon in March 2013 but remained near the California border.
In June 2014, Oregon wildlife officials confirmed OR7 was raising a litter of pups just over the state line in Oregon. At the time, biologists said the finding significantly increased the odds that wolves eventually would repopulate California for the first time since being exterminated by hunters nearly 90 years ago.
Kovacs said the wildlife department has collected scat from OR7 and droppings from the new pack. An Idaho lab is testing the DNA samples to see if they are related, or to determine where the pack’s bloodlines originate.
“We’re very interested in where did these wolves come from and who did they descend from,” Kovacs said.
OR7 got his name because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in Oregon, allowing biologists to track his location in near real-time. Kovacs said scientists will try to capture one or both of the adult wolves in the Shasta Pack to affix a similar collar on them.
By the 1930s, wolves had been hunted and trapped to near-extinction across the United States. Under federal protection programs, they were re-established in several states, and the offspring from those efforts have rapidly populated in the West. Oregon discovered its first breeding pair of wolves in 2008. There were 77 animals by the end of 2014.
Kovacs said California officials have not yet set a formal wolf population goal since it’s unclear how many the state’s habitat can support. But biologists have been impressed with their ability to reclaim their former range.
“These are very resilient critters,” she said.
Officials say they will revise the draft wolf-management plan to reflect the family’s arrival. It should be available for public comment by the end of the year.