California appears to have another roving wolf

Did a new wolf decide to call northeastern California home? And what happened to the Shasta Pack, the state’s first confirmed family of wolves in almost a century? How many survived the long winter?

Attempting to answer those questions is going to keep wolf biologists busy this summer.

State officials announced this week that a gray wolf-like animal walked past motion-activated trail cameras multiple times over the past several months in western Lassen County, most recently in May. While state officials believe it’s a wolf, there’s a chance it could be someone’s dog or a wolf-dog hybrid.

A fur sample collected near where the animal was photographed last October was analyzed by a University of Idaho laboratory to determine if the DNA belongs to a wolf. But the sample quality wasn’t good enough to tell for sure. Officials say they will continue to monitor trail cameras and search for scat, fur and other evidence that could be tested.

Karen Kovacs, a wildlife program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said if it is a wolf, it’s not clear whether the animal has moved into that area or is just passing through in its wanderings around the north state.

“When you look at the time between when we’re getting images, there’s some gaps there,” she said. “Where is it going? How far is it going? Those are unknown.”

State officials say that based on the color of the animal’s coat, it’s not a member of the Shasta Pack, the dark-haired breeding pair and five pups spotted last year living in eastern Siskiyou County.

Nor is it OR25, a young male from Oregon wearing a radio collar that allows biologists to keep tabs on its movements. In January, that wolf walked into California via Modoc County in the rural northeastern corner of the state. OR25 returned to Oregon, but has made several more jaunts into California. The wolf, also dark-furred, is a former member of the Imnaha Pack of northeastern Oregon. Wildlife officials say he left the pack in March 2015.

The announcement of a possible new wolf in the region comes amid uncertainty about what happened to the Shasta Pack. Kovacs said it’s unclear how many of the pack survived Siskiyou County’s long, snowy winter since they appear to have moved on from the area where the pups were raised last year. The area was covered in snow, so the pack likely headed out in search of food, Kovacs said.

“Where they went is unknown,” Kovacs said. “All we can try to do is monitor the site that they were at last year and continue to inquire from the public about what they see, where they see it and when they see it.”

One brown and black wolf has shown up on one of the state’s remote cameras in that area so far this year. Kovacs said it’s likely a member of the Shasta Pack, but without a radio collar it’s difficult to say. She said biologists hope to collar at least one member of any pack that settles in California.

Meanwhile, state officials announced this week they have a better sense of where the Shasta Pack originated. DNA tests of scat and hair samples show that the parents – like OR25 – are both former members of the Imnaha Pack.

Kovacs said inbreeding isn’t an immediate cause for concern for the pack’s offspring because there’s enough genetic diversity among the various Western packs of wolves.

After being eradicated early last century, wolves made their controversial return to California in 2011, when OR7, a 2-year-old gray male, left the Imnaha pack and traveled hundreds of miles, entering California that December. OR7 since has returned to Oregon, found a mate and started his own pack.

OR7’s appearance prompted the California Fish and Game Commission to grant gray wolves endangered species protections. While cheered by environmentalists, the decision is opposed by some ranchers and big-game hunters who fear wolves will attack livestock and deplete deer and elk herds.

Those concerns flared in November when 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 predation on livestock is rare, especially if ranchers take steps to keep the animals away.

State wildlife officials have released a draft wolf conservation plan that outlines strategies for dealing with conflicts with people and livestock. Kovacs said the plan will be finalized by the end of the year.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow