The Conversation

Wolf pack stirs the imagination

This Aug. 9 image from video shows evidence of five gray wolf pups and two adults in Northern California.
This Aug. 9 image from video shows evidence of five gray wolf pups and two adults in Northern California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

After camping for six days near Mount Shasta, my wife and I packed up the car and headed into town for showers, a soft bed and margaritas, not necessarily in that order.

I was driving out to the main road, and about 20 yards in front of us, an animal darted across our path.

My first thought: Hey, that’s a wolf! A second thought quickly followed: There are no wolves here, not since OR7 left California two years ago. It must have been a coyote.

Still, seeing a coyote is pretty cool. Spotting animals and birds of prey in the wild is always exciting. I’ve seen many deer wander through our campsites over the years. On one camping trip, I saw a bear that chomped on a cooler in someone else’s campsite. As the campers screamed and clanged pots to chase it away, I ran across the road to see the bear. It stopped, looked back at me and ambled into the woods. My wife thought I was crazy.

Once in town, we stopped at a coffee shop and picked up the Mount Shasta Herald from the first week in August. On the front page was a story about a lone gray wolf photographed in Siskiyou County by a motion-activated trail camera.

Did I see a wolf? Maybe. Maybe not. After talking with a few people who know about wolves, I’ve been trying to remember the size, shape and other characteristics of the animal I glimpsed. Was it the size of a big dog, or the size of a fox?

A couple of weeks later, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released photos of two adult gray wolves and five pups that had taken up residence in the Golden State, the first wolves to do so in nearly 100 years. The family of wolves was a little surprising for officials at Fish and Wildlife.

“I thought I’d be retired before we had wolves in California, and I’ve had 33 years in the department,” said Karen Kovacs, who is leading the department’s wolf management planning efforts.

“We knew they were coming, but they caught us by surprise,” she said of the Shasta pack. “We were staying on top of credible sightings, and we were putting out remote cameras.”

Fish and Wildlife began planning for the return of wolves even before OR7 wandered through Oregon and crossed the border into California in late 2011. Now that the pack is here, a draft wolf management plan has been delayed until the end of this year.

The arrival of the wolf pack stirs the imagination in some but evokes strong emotional reactions, positive and negative, in others. Wolves bring political baggage wherever they tread. Not everyone is happy about the prospect of a family of dominant predators taking up residence in California.

A director at the California Wolf Center said that a vast majority of Californians want wolves to return, but 18 percent don’t.

“They are the ones who have to live with wolves,” Karin Vardaman said of farmers and ranchers who fear for the safety of their livestock.

“There is a good chance that at some point wolf-livestock conflicts will become inevitable,” said Kirk Wilbur of the California Cattlemen’s Association, who is working with Fish and Wildlife on the wolf management plan, along with agricultural officials and environmentalists.

Wolves had lived in California for millennia. Ranchers and farmers feared them 100 years ago, and hunted them to near extinction. The last gray wolf living in California was killed in 1924 in Lassen County.

Since then, the nation’s mindset about preserving flora and fauna has changed dramatically. We have powerful laws to protect animals, fish and plants, and their habitat.

In 2014, the California Endangered Species Act listed the gray wolf as one of those animals we could lose to extinction. The state ESA prohibits killing a gray wolf except to protect humans. Ranchers would like to change that so they can protect livestock.

Gray wolves did not disappear because their habitat was destroyed.

“We lost them because we purposely killed them. Now it’s time for us to step up and protect them,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity.

There needs to be a balance in attitudes and actions to protect wolves and to protect livestock. But strong state and federal protections are crucial to help the gray wolf live in California, a place it once called home.

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