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Wolves, and Misinformation About Them, Make a California Comeback

ScienceWolves, and Misinformation About Them, Make a California Comeback

Kent Laudon, a wolf biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, woke up one morning last year to a flurry of text messages from a rancher in the state’s northernmost county. He was asking about a post with wildly specific details spreading across Facebook that urged people to find a red truck that was transporting breeding wolves along Route 97 into Siskiyou County, Calif. Mr. Laudon was not surprised. This wasn’t the first post of its kind, and it wouldn’t be the last.

“Wolves make people crazy,” he said of these persistent rumors. “And for the record: No, we’re not importing wolves. That never happened.”

Wolves don’t need to be dropped off in California because they are returning on their own. The last of the state’s original wild wolves was killed by a hunter in Lassen County in Northern California in 1924. Since 2011, a series of roving canids have come and gone. Now it seems that in the state’s far-north counties, families of wolves are there to stay, with a relatively stable population of about 20 wolves. That number may fluctuate once spring begins and new pups emerge from their dens, but California can probably expect to have wolves calling the state home for years to come.

Their return is motivating conservationists and scientists like Mr. Laudon to battle misinformation and the deep politicization of the species. Simultaneously, biologists are learning more about their habits in an effort to help humans and wolves coexist.

Centuries ago, North America had anywhere from 250,000 to two million gray wolves. When settlers arrived, they quickly decimated the wolves’ native prey of bison, elk and deer, and then replaced them with livestock. California’s wolves were no exception.

But experts agree it was only a matter of time before wolves returned.

When wolves go in search of mates and their own territory, they disperse from their packs on remarkable journeys. A wolf named OR-7 roamed California for 15 months starting in December 2011. His radio collar recorded around 4,000 miles in his quest for a partner, whom he eventually found in Oregon, his home state. One of his daughters, OR-54, traveled over 8,700 miles, including a trip to the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Last year, a 2-year-old lone wolf broke records when he traveled through the Central Coast of California, the first known to do so in over a century. The wolf, named OR-93, wandered from the Mount Hood area of Oregon to San Luis Obispo County, Calif. In November, he was hit by a car 50 miles north of Los Angeles after traveling over 1,000 miles through the state.

While scientists believe other uncollared wolves have been roaming wide swaths of the state largely undetected, wolves did not stay put in California until recently. In 2015, the state briefly became home to its first modern wolf pack when a pair of wolves from Oregon arrived in the Shasta County area. The “Shasta Pack” were the first wild wolves to settle in California since the species’ eradication in the state, which took place in the same area. When the Shasta Pack mysteriously disappeared months later after one litter, California was again without wolves.

In 2017, a new wolf pack took up residence over a 500-mile area where western Lassen and northern Plumas Counties meet. The “Lassen Pack” has had successful litters every year since its arrival. In November 2020, two new wolves arrived to the state, creating the “Whaleback Pair” — and their new pups — who now occupy 480 square miles in eastern Siskiyou County. Last May, biologists discovered the “Beckwourth Pack” in eastern Plumas County, led by a 2-year-old female from the Lassen Pack.

Kent Laudon, a wolf biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and his dog Sammie. “Wolves have been politicized because they are right in the middle of this divide between rural and urban,” he said.Credit…Morgan Heim
An alpha female wolf photographed by a camera trap set by Mr. Laudon.Credit…Morgan Heim

There are an estimated 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states. All of them dispersed from three modern populations: Yellowstone, Idaho and northwest Montana. Wolves entered Montana on their own but were hunted relentlessly. They were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho though Canada in the 1990s. From there, some dispersed to Washington State. Oregon’s first pack arrived in 2009. A trip south into California was inevitable.

“For the most part, California has really laid out the welcome mat for wolves. When OR-7 came in 2011, it was an enormous celebratory moment,” said Amaroq Weiss, a wolf biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve seen the same spike of excitement with every new wolf that has come into California. People are drawn to the story of a lone individual seeking a mate or going on an adventure in a place where his species hasn’t been for years.”

However inviting California has been, the state’s landscape looks very different than it did a century ago when its last wild wolves were wiped out. The number of people living in the state’s remote north has doubled since wolves were wiped out.

And where there are people living, working and farming, wolves often have a bad reputation.

“Wolves have been politicized because they are right in the middle of this divide between rural and urban, and this divide we have in the country between one set of facts and another,” Mr. Laudon said.

The gray wolf was removed from the federal endangered species list in the final months of the Trump administration. Weeks later, in February 2021, Wisconsin hunters killed 218 wolves in 60 hours, exceeding a season-long hunting quota of 119. That obliterated nearly 20 percent of the entire state’s wolf population in less than three days (illegal poaching might have killed more). Wildlife groups and Ojibwe tribes sued in response, and the November 2021 hunt was put on hold.

Then in February of this year, a federal judge in California restored the wolves’ federal protection, which will end hunts like the one in Wisconsin for now.

But even with the protections restored, the ruling excludes wolves in much of the northern Rocky Mountain regions. Because of their higher populations, wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah were not included in the scope of the decision. For now, these wolves will still be managed by their respective states.

In 2021, lawmakers in Idaho signed a bill that allowed almost no restrictions on how roughly 1,500 wolves in the state were to be hunted and purchase of unlimited wolf hunting permits. In addition to approving neck snares, baiting and nighttime hunting, a new law in Montana allows bounties on wolves, much like the early 20th century practices that endangered the species in the first place.

In recent months, Yellowstone National Park officials were distressed to learn at least 20 gray wolves were killed after wandering out of park boundaries onto state land in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. That is the highest number of hunting season deaths since the species was reintroduced to the area in 1995. Now, there are fewer than 100 wolves in the park.

“The wolf is a surrogate for people’s hatred against government intervention because they’ve been protected. People see protecting wolves as a symbol of everything they hate about the government telling them what they can and can’t do,” Ms. Weiss said.

Wolves roamed a meadow frequented by grazing cattle in Lassen County, Calif.Credit…Morgan Heim
Wallace Roney, left, installing an electric fence with fladry — strips of fabric or cloth that flap in the wind and that are meant to deter wolves — on his Lassen County ranch.Credit…Morgan Heim

In contrast, California, a state that has both extremely rural and extremely urban areas, has one of the strongest state endangered species acts in the nation. It is a crime to kill a wolf in California.

Where the wolves roam, the state’s fish and wildlife agency tracks their whereabouts and collect blood samples, DNA samples, weight statistics and health information whenever possible to gain a better understanding of who stays, who leaves and where they settle. Some wolves are fitted with satellite modems attached to neck collars. California and Oregon’s fish and wildlife departments speak regularly about individual wolves and share their collar data. Occasionally, uncollared wolves will pop up on trail cameras or through DNA samples in California, typically in Lassen, Modoc, Plumas and Siskiyou Counties.

The wolves even managed to survive the Dixie wildfire in California, the second largest in the state’s history, which swept through their territories and burned nearly one million acres last summer.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about wolves returning. An important part of Mr. Laudon’s job is battling the wolves’ bad reputation. He tries to break down barriers by presenting information in a nonthreatening way that allows people to make their own decisions. Sometimes, it works.

Dusty de Braga is a contract grazer who manages cattle across 200,000 acres of Lassen and Plumas Counties. When he first heard wolves were back in California, he assumed they were being imported.

“It seemed fishy to me,” he said. After seeing data on how far the collared wolves traveled, he changed his mind. “Now I think it’s not out of the realm of possibility they naturally dispersed,” he said, but he added that plenty of other people were still convinced that state wildlife officials brought them in.

Mr. de Braga has seen wolves semi-regularly since they arrived. He estimates that between his herds and the herds of his two closest neighbors, wolves have killed over 20 cows and calves in the last five years. Some, but not all, have been confirmed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Wolves are new here. When it’s new it’s the hardest. Any time wolves kill something, that’s what gets in the paper. For 363 days of the year, it’s fine. Two days wolves screw up, and it makes the news,” Mr. Laudon said. “It fosters the notion that they’re this really damaging critter, and the good news is usually wolves aren’t anywhere near that bad.”

Mr. Laudon, with Sammie’s assistance, listening for collared wolves in Lassen County.Credit…Morgan Heim

In fact, wolf managers believe the animals are far from the unrivaled livestock killers people imagine them to be. They can be scared off by aggressive mother cows. Wolves are also easily deterred by electric fences, bright lights and flashes. When they do stalk cattle, they typically pick off young, weak and sick animals. Otherwise, they scavenge dead carcasses.

The problem is scale. For Mr. de Braga and many others who are dealing with large herds across hundreds of thousands of acres, deterring wolves seems futile.

“It’s pretty hard to like wolves when they cost us so much money. They don’t kill cattle every day, but there’s no compensation program when they do,” he said.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 98 percent of adult cattle deaths — and 89 percent of calves — are the result of non-predator issues like respiratory problems, old age, birthing complications, infections and poisonous weeds.

And for that small percent of kills, other predators are often to blame, like coyotes — responsible for the majority of cattle deaths — dogs, bears, cougars, bobcats and vultures. Wolves come in behind all of those animals. Even those U.S.D.A. numbers have been questioned by the Humane Society of the United States, which released a report in 2019 stating that the numbers were greatly inflated compared with California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports.

“They’re fascinating but they’re expensive to have in your country,” Mr. de Braga said. “It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they decided to leave but at the same time I’m not going to go shoot them.”

And in California, no one can shoot them legally. Those protections mean wolves in the state’s north are able to act like wolves. While other places debate the animals’ reputation as either suitable or harmful, wolves can continue their seasonal cycles of growing up, leaving the pack, finding a mate and denning. Biologists are now realizing how much there is to learn about what wolves actually do when they can act naturally.

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