Soapbox

The return of wolves to California is endangered by new plan

An August still image from video released by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shows evidence of five gray wolf pups and two adults in Northern California.
An August still image from video released by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shows evidence of five gray wolf pups and two adults in Northern California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

From wolf OR-7’s first groundbreaking steps into California four years ago to the emergence last summer of the state’s first wolf pack in nearly a century, the return of gray wolves shows the remarkable success of decades of efforts, based on science and guided by the Endangered Species Act, to recover wolves across much of the West.

Yet little more than a year after California protected gray wolves, a recently released state plan raises questions about its commitment to establishing a research-based plan for sharing the state’s wild places not merely with small remnant wolf populations, but populations able to withstand disease, climate change and ongoing intolerance from a small but politically powerful segment of Californians.

The plan makes one thing clear moving forward: California is a great place for cattle, sheep and elk.

The plan isn’t all bad. As a member of the stakeholder group that offered input on early drafts, I was encouraged to see that it broadly explores nonlethal strategies to discourage livestock-wolf conflicts and that it sets goals for public education to promote coexistence with wolves.

But the plan steps far outside the bounds of credible research and into the world of special interest-driven politics when it calls for authorizing the state to kill wolves when the population reaches as few as 50 to 75 animals.

In an equally troubling step, the plan calls for increasing the number of bears and coyotes killed – and the eventual killing of wolves – to maintain elk and deer populations, though habitat conditions are bigger factors.

Although the plan says regulators do not believe they have enough information about the future of wolves to set specific goals for when protections will be dropped, its framework for long-term management opens the door far too quickly.

For example, if wolves are still federally protected when California’s wolf population reaches just two breeding pairs for two consecutive years, the state could consider petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list wolves as “threatened” instead of “endangered.” That would allow the state to authorize killing wolves. The plan suggests that when California is home to only nine breeding pairs, regulators could consider whether to begin the process of dropping state protections.

Overall, the tone of the plan suggests state wildlife managers view the new wolf population as a problem to be solved rather than a historic conservation opportunity to be savored.

The plan highlights the importance of providing “abundant prey for wolves and other predators, intrinsic enjoyment by the public and hunting opportunities for hunters.” Yet, nowhere does it fully explore the certain pleasure that viewing wolves is sure to bring to wildlife enthusiasts, let alone the expected economic benefits.

The good news is that this is only a draft plan and Californians have until Feb. 15 to submit comments to the state. There will also be public meetings on the plan Jan. 21 in Yreka, Jan. 26 in Long Beach and Feb. 1 in Sacramento.

Wolves traveled hundreds of miles dodging untold threats to recolonize California. Now the state must go the extra mile and take the necessary steps to make sure they are managed not as an inconvenience but as a valued public trust to be celebrated.

Amaroq Weiss is a California-based biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. She can be contacted at aweiss@biologicaldiversity.org.

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