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Wolves in California

California Wolf Recovery News- California is now experiencing the beginning of the long-awaited homecoming of one of its native species, the gray wolf. Wolves have been absent from the state for nearly 90 years, after being eradicated in the early 20th century through an extermination campaign. After a 300+ mile trek across Oregon, with a few loping strides, wolf OR-7 crossed the border into California in December 2011, in a region of our state that has excellent wolf habitat. Since he is the first confirmed wild wolf in California since 1924, it's an extraordinarily exciting moment in the natural history of this species and this state. Wolves play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and while OR-7 by himself won't fulfill that role, he inspires the hope that more wolves will eventually join him. Although wolves' return to any location may stir controversy, in part due to the myths and misinformation surrounding wolves, OR-7 brings with him the opportunity for Californians to learn about and appreciate a once-native species, and that's something to celebrate.

CDFW Richard Shinn

Photo Credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, RIchard Shinn

Clear historical records from 1750 to 1850 indicate that wolves were once present in the Coastal Range from San Diego to Sacramento when Europeans first began exploring and settling these areas (Schmidt 1987, 1991). From 1850-1900, wolves were seen in Shasta County and in the central Sierra Nevada (Schmidt 1987, 1991). These historical reports of wolves appear in divergent areas of the state; reports surfaced in different areas over time as Europeans shifted from coasts toward inland forests, mountains and plains.

The wolf was known among many California tribes statewide, as demonstrated in language, artwork, ceremonial garb, and creation stories (Geddes-Osborne and Margolin 2001). For example, more than 80 distinct tribal languages were spoken in California when Europeans first arrived and most had clearly differentiated words for wolf, coyote, fox and dog. Some tribes revered the wolf as sacred, though representations of the wolf are diverse among California tribes.

European settlement changed the landscape of California from wilderness to a land marked by missions, towns, ranchos, agricultural development, and roads. Simultaneously, market hunters decimated prey populations that would have supported wolves, and the state legislature enacted bounty laws to eradicate wolves and coyotes. By the middle of the 1920s, wolves in California seem to have disappeared entirely. One was trapped in San Bernardino County in 1922. Another, the last to be captured in the state, was trapped in Lassen County in 1924. Although the U.S. Forest Service estimated that some 50 wolves existed in Lassen, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Angeles, and Rouge River National Forests as recently as 1937, there was little evidence that any wolves were actually present. Schmidt (1987, 1991) concluded that all of the wolves trapped in recent years had been released from captivity.

Oregon Dept Fish/Wildlife

Photo Credit: Oregon Dept Fish/Wildlife

The same widespread extermination of wolves that happened in California also occurred across the rest of the United States during the early 20th century. By the 1960s, the only gray wolves left in the lower 48 states were found in northern Minnesota and Isle Royale, Michigan. Just as the last wolves were disappearing from the landscape, however, early conservationists such as Aldo Leopold and Adolph Murie began sounding the call for conserving them, noting their important ecological role. The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped further increase public support for wolves, and in 1973 they received protections under the federal Endangered Species Act. With the reintroduction of wolves into the northern Rockies in the mid-1990s, wolves began to make a comeback. As wolf recovery has progressed, scientists have learned more and more about the wolf's important role in restoring natural ecosystem dynamics (Berger et al. 2008; Beschta and Ripple 2010). You can learn more on our Wolves as Engineers of Biodiversity page.

Lee Kirchevel

Photo Credit: Bill Bowman, Friends of Del Norte

Now, almost two decades after the first wolves were brought to Yellowstone in the 1990s, the wolf has begun to return to California on its own. Exactly what the future population or distribution of wolves in the state will look like is still uncertain. The Klamath-Siskiyou and Modoc Plateau regions in northern California and southwestern Oregon could support up to 470 wolves, according to a feasibility study conducted by the Conservation Biology Institute (Carroll et al. 2001). We also don't know how long it will be until the first wolf pack becomes established in California. Oregon has at least six confirmed wolf packs as of 2013, having begun with an original lone female that entered Oregon from Idaho in 1999. Wolves are also established in Washington State, and reports exist of wolves in the Cascade range in both Washington and Oregon. This mountain backbone could provide a natural dispersal route extending into California, Nevada and neighboring states. At this time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans to reintroduce wolves into California, but more individuals of this highly mobile species will likely come on their own in the near future. OR-7's journey is the first step in this process that we hope will continue until wolves have reclaimed their place among California's native wildlife.

The California Wolf Center is engaged in education, outreach and conservation efforts to help prepare for the return of wolves to California, and is supporting additional research on historical evidence of wolves in the state.

You can have a direct impact on California wolf recovery by supporting our vital efforts.

This is a critical time for wolf recovery with the recent proposed loss of federal protection of gray wolves. In order for the California Wolf Center to continue is vital work towards ensuring the successful return and protection of wolves in California, we need your help. Together we can restore this icon of wilderness to our state. Learn more about what the California Wolf Center is doing for wolves in California. Please also consider DONATING NOW to support this important work.

Works Cited:

Berger, K.M., E.M. Gese, and J. Berger. 2008. Indirect effects and traditional trophic cascades: A test involving wolves, coyotes, and pronghorn. Ecology 89: 818-828.

Beschta, R.L. and W.J. Ripple. 2010. Recovering riparian plant communities with wolves in northern Yellowstone, U.S.A. Restoration Ecology 18: 380-389.

Geddes-Osborne, A. and M. Margolin. Man and Wolf. Defenders Magazine 76(2): 36-41. 2001.

Schmidt, R.H. Historical records of wolves in California. WOLF! 5(2): 31-35. 1987.

Schmidt, R.H. Gray wolves in California: their presence and absence. Calif. Fish and Game 77(2):79-85. 1991.

For more information about wolves and wildlife, explore the rest of our education pages and find excellent resources on our Links page.

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