Author’s note: When I learned that Andrea Klemer was working with wolf education in her home country of Germany at about the time a new wolf pack was discovered to be residing in California for the first time in nearly 100 years, I thought it would be interesting for readers to see how Germany is handling the recolonization of wolves compared to the U.S. and, in particular, California. Andrea enthusiastically responded to my request, so here appears two stories of wolves returning to their native habitats almost 6,000 miles apar
To read the parallel story of the comeback of wolves to Europe, click here.
Wolves have been absent from their native California habitat since 1924. That year, the last known wolf in the state was trapped and shot in Lassen County.
As many as 2 million gray wolves once roamed North America, but they were killed off by European settlers. Wolves weren’t the only species to face extinction by these newcomers as bison and grizzly bears were also decimated. Even the indigenous population could not stand in the way of these immigrants that were flooding the eastern shores and migrating west.
This mass extermination of wolves continued into the 1930s, and by the middle of that decade all wolves were mostly extirpated from their native range throughout the United States. However, a small population remained in northwestern Montana that began naturally recolonizing.
In 1994, there were about 65 wolves in that small region. Over the next two years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the controversial reintroduction of two populations of wolves, one in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) and the other in Idaho.
Since then, gray wolf (Canis lupus) populations have expanded and disbursed. There are now approximately 68 wolves in Washington and an estimated 81 in Oregon.
And there are at least seven wolves in California.
In 2011, California became the latest chapter in this tale of astounding comeback from the brink of extinction when a radio-collared, adolescent wolf, known as OR7, entered the state at its border with Oregon. OR7, a 2-1/2-year-old male, left the Imnaha Pack of northeastern Oregon and began his incredible journey south.
When he stepped over the invisible boundary into California, hundreds of miles from where he started, he could not possibly know that he making history. There had not been a wolf in California for 87 years, and OR7’s footprints on the state set in motion some protections.
While the State of California is not reintroducing wolves, those that naturally recolonize here are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and, as of June 2014, the California Department of Fish and Game Commission voted to list the gray wolf as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. This ensures protection for any wolf that enters the state.
For now, OR7 has decided that California is not the place to raise a family and instead settled down in Oregon with a mate, where he established a pack. But as of 2015, California has its first wolf pack in nearly a century.
Making their range in Siskiyou County, these wolves consist of a male and female and their five pups, all of which are black. They are dubbed, appropriately, the Shasta Pack.
Another wolf, OR25, a young male from Oregon, also from the Imnaha Pack and fitted with a radio collar, has also been moving in and out of California in the rural northeastern corner of the state. And a possible wolf was spotted on a state Department Fish and Wildlife trail camera in northeastern California, meaning there could be another wolf considering California for its habitat.
The return of the wolf is not without controversy. Ranchers are wary of the predators because they might attack livestock; hunters have concern that wolves will deplete the deer and elk populations.
The Shasta Pack did find itself in a bit of hot water when, in November 2015, they were spotted in Siskiyou County eating a calf. It’s unknown if the pack killed the calf, which could have had an unrelated cause of death and the wolves just took advantage of the situation and scavenged the carcass.
It is important to note that contrary to the fairy tales and misconceptions, wolves pose little direct threat to humans. And just like with bears, those who live in wolf habitat must take measures to protect livestock, pets, and domestic birds.
However, in California wolf country, those measures are required by law to be nonlethal. The wolves are protected by law, so it is a crime to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect them in California.
Today, 20 years after their reintroduction, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services estimates there are about 1,800 wolves in six states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and northeastern California. There are also wolves in Alaska (7,700); Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (2,423); and Arizona and New Mexico (109).
Since wolves last resided in the state, development has eliminated much of their historic ranges, roadways crisscross the countryside, and human population has increased exponentially, so while wolves are highly adaptable, CDFW biologists are uncertain how many wolves will be able to establish here, and where.