Dozens of lambs killed in a single night, aborted calves, chronically stressed cows. These destructive scenarios could await ranchers in far Northern California and their animals thanks to the California Fish and Game Commission’s indefensible move to list the gray wolf as “endangered.”
Criticized by a dissenting commissioner as “the stupidest decision” the panel has ever made, the listing last month will hamstring landowners’ efforts to safeguard their livestock and livelihoods if gray wolves begin to establish themselves after a long absence from the state.
A small pack has taken up residence in Siskiyou County near the Oregon border. Although it may not permanently settle there, the discovery of the Shasta pack should signal state regulators that they need to work with landowners on sensible protections. Instead, the rigid regulations under an “endangered” listing make that practically impossible.
The listing doesn’t just create perils for ranchers, farmers and the rural economies that depend on them, it’s also bad science and bad law. Indeed, the federal government is moving to do the opposite – take the gray wolf off the federal endangered list because its numbers are healthy when considered as a whole, through much of the West and the northern Midwest.
The commission managed to label this animal as “endangered” only by willfully ignoring its populations outside California. Such parochialism, however, is not allowed under a proper reading of state law, which requires analysis of a species throughout “all, or a significant portion, of its range.”
Gray wolves were already protected in California as a “nongame mammal,” a legal arrangement that allowed flexible control. In contrast, under the state “endangered” listing, it will be next to impossible for landowners to get permits to kill or even remove a wolf that is threatening their animals. State officials would also run into red tape if they were to try to capture or kill a wolf.
In November, Siskiyou County ranchers came across wolves gnawing a calf carcass; state officials are calling it a probable wolf kill. If the wolf population becomes established and grows, and meaningful defenses are outlawed, California could see a repeat of what happened in Idaho. After federal officials introduced wolves in the mid-1990s – and banned protective measures by landowners – Idaho ranches suffered years of attacks. As Beef magazine reported in 2010, wolves were known to brazenly enter calving pens at night. The presence of wolves also agitated livestock, resulting in disrupted grazing, lower pregnancy rates, weight loss and trampled calves.
California’s Endangered Species Act is expressly limited to native species and subspecies. Yet the gray wolves that have been added to the list are originally from Canada, representing a subspecies of wolf that was never present in California.
In fact, the listing process was triggered by the discovery of a single wolf – OR-7 – that didn’t even permanently reside in the state, but rather crossed the Oregon border in 2011 and later crossed back. Never before had a listing been initiated on the basis of one animal’s occasional wanderings into the state – a fact that led the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to unsuccessfully recommend against the listing.
Ironically, this legally dubious listing of a non-native wolf is a threat to genuine native animals that state regulators are supposed to be concerned about.
The wolf is an iconic species that arouses strong emotions in the environmental and livestock communities. But passion can’t be allowed to trump facts or the requirements of the law. The commission has overstepped its authority. It should recognize its error in listing the wolf and start anew.
Damien Schiff is a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based litigation firm. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.