A Lone Wolf Travels Toward California

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Recent news accounts have reported that a gray wolf has been wandering in southern Oregon. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) this animal is a 2 ½ year old male formerly from a pack in northeast Oregon. Since the animal has been collared with a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that periodically transmits its location, biologists have been able to document its travels since early September. Based on the GPS data, he is now more than 300 miles from where his journey began. As of yet, there are no direct observations confirming his presence, or that of any other wolves, in California.

“It’s too early to say with any certainty whether wolves will again become a resident species in California,” Department of Fish and Game (DFG) Director Charlton H. Bonham said. “But it is definitely an historic predator surrounded by legend and lore.”

Any wild gray wolf that returns to California is protected as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

DFG has been following the recovery and migration of gray wolves in western states with the expectation that at some point they will likely reach California. The last confirmed wild gray wolf in California was killed in Lassen County in 1924. The available historic information on wolves in California suggests that while they were widely distributed, they were not abundant. DFG has been compiling historic records, life history information, reviewing studies on wolf populations in other western states, enhancing communication with other agencies and training biologists on field techniques specific to wolves. This effort is to ensure that DFG has all necessary information available when needed, it is not a wolf management plan and DFG does not intend to reintroduce wolves into California.

There are more than 1,600 wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains following a federal reintroduction effort which occurred in the mid-1990s. In 1999 a single wolf crossed into Oregon from Idaho, after nearly a 60-year absence in that state. There are now at least 23 wolves in Oregon in four reproducing packs. It has taken an additional 12 years for the first wolf to now approach the California border. This particular animal is exhibiting normal dispersal behavior for a young male and there is no way to predict whether he will enter California, stay in Oregon, or travel east into Nevada. Eventually, DFG expects that wolves will reach California. Whether this will lead to the establishment of packs or simply transient individual animals is unknown.

Gray wolf recovery in other western states has been controversial, particularly regarding impacts on prey populations, livestock depredation and human safety. There have been instances where gray wolf predation has contributed to declines in deer and elk populations, however, in most cases, predation has had little effect. Some gray wolves have killed livestock – mostly cattle and sheep – while others rely entirely on wild prey. In other western states the impact of depredation on livestock has been very small, certainly less than predation by coyotes and mountain lions, although the effect on an individual livestock producer can be important, particularly when sheep are killed.

Concerns about human safety are largely based on folklore and unsubstantiated in North America. In recent years there was one human mortality in Canada caused either by wolves or bears and one confirmed human mortality in Alaska by wolves. Based on experience from states where substantial wolf populations now exist, wolves pose little risk to humans.

In the near future DFG expects to add information to its website (www.dfg.ca.gov) to provide extensive information on wolves to the public.