Saving and Protecting the Rare California Wolf
A symbol of wilderness lost, the last gray wolf in California was killed in 1924. The subject of European superstition and viewed as competitors for wild game and a threat to domestic animals and even people, wolves were hunted to oblivion across most of the continental United States.
But wolves are making a comeback. Last December a lone wolf wandered into northern California from Oregon, the first in nearly 90 years. He faces many natural challenges—especially finding a mate!—but his biggest threat is the same human fear, greed and superstition that his distant ancestors faced decades before. Thankfully, though wolves are still far from being a certainty in California, the state’s Fish and Game agency has recommended that wolves, should they return, be protected by California’s Endangered Species law.
Since the 1950s, biologists began to understand wolves’ vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Predation strengthened prey species by weeding out genetically unfit animals and selecting for the strongest to survive and breed. This understanding led to efforts to restore wolves that have brought the species back to several states after decades-long absence.
In Yellowstone, where wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s studies have shown the benefits of predation on not just the wildlife but the entire ecosystem there—even trees! Aspens, once a dominant tree in the park, were nearing elimination due to oversized elk herds that, in the absence of natural predation, lingered along river and stream beds all winter devastating the young aspen shoots. The presence of wolves in winter has forced the elk to keep moving and because they can no longer linger indefinitely on river beds, the aspens are once again growing.
This successful return of wolves has been a cause for celebration amongst most biologists and Americans. Unfortunately, many hunters, unwilling to compete with natural predators for wild game, and ranchers, who fear financial loss, are not happy about the wolf’s return. Calls by their powerful lobbies for wolf trapping, snaring, poisoning and even shooting from helicopters are being heard by state governments.
Caving into pressure from those western state’s lobbies, in May, 2011, the US Congress removed federal Endangered Species Act protection from wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, leaving the states of Montana and Idaho to “manage” their recently established wolf populations. This unprecedented attack on the nation’s heralded wildlife protection law has had predictable and devastating results. In just a year, Idaho has lost 40 percent of its wolf population to hunting and trapping. Wolf numbers are now estimated at fewer than 600. Meanwhile, Montana is estimated to have killed a third of its wolf population since May, with reports of about 260 wolves killed. State officials there are now moving toward an aggressive anti-wolf policy similar to Idaho’s.
This same mentality poses a threat to Journey and his kin in California. Though there is plenty of room for wolves in California from a biological perspective, his arrival has already sparked fear-mongering by the state’s ranchers and hunters. And our irrational fears are still there too. Just witness the release of the film, The Gray earlier this year, an egregious work of fiction that depicted wolves in much the same way that the movie Jaws depicted sharks—as bloodthirsty man hunters.
The recommendation by the California Department of Fish and Game to assure protection of wolves should they establish a population in the state, is a step in the right direction. It signals that the state may put science and healthy wildlife populations above the greed of hunters and ranchers. Its proposal will be considered by the California Fish and Game Commission, which will decide in October whether to accept the recommendation.