Wolves in California
(courtesy California Wolf Center)
In discussing the history of wolves in the southwestern United States, Brown (1983) reported that despite an abundance of what appear to be suitable habitats; virtually no wolves have been seen in California. Schmidt (1987, 1991), however, came to a different conclusion based on his review of historical records. He found clear records from 1750 to 1850 indicating that wolves were present in the Coastal Range from San Diego to Sacramento when these areas were first being explored and settled. From 1850-1900, wolves were seen in Shasta County and in the central Sierra Nevada. These historical reports of wolves appear in divergent areas of the state; reports surfaced in different areas over time as European exploration and settlement shifted from the coasts toward the inland forests, mountains and plains. Geddes-Osborne and Margolin (2001) reported that the wolf was known among many California tribes statewide, as demonstrated in language, artwork, ceremonial garb, and creation stories. The most compelling evidence of widespread wolf presence is found in tribal languages; more than 80 distinct languages were spoken in California when Europeans first arrived and most had clearly differentiated words for wolf, coyote, fox and dog.
Photo Credit: Oregon Dept Fish/Wildlife
European settlement changed the very landscape of California from wilderness to a land marked by Missions, towns, ranchos, agricultural development and roads. Simultaneously, prey populations that would have supported wolves were decimated by market hunters, and the state legislature enacted bounty laws to rid the state of wolves and coyotes. By the middle of the 1920’s any wolves that may have existed 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 US Forest Service estimated that some 50 wolves existed in the 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 concluded that all of the wolves trapped in recent years have been ones released from captivity.
Schmidt noted two compelling reasons for trying to determine the past distribution of wolves in California. First, the possibility of reintroducing wolves to the state has frequently been discussed, and information about their historical range could be useful in this debate. A feasibility study for the restoration of the wolf to the Klamath-Siskiyou and Modoc Plateau regions that overlap northern California and southwestern Oregon, conducted by the Conservation Biology Institute, determined this area could support up to 470 wolves (Carroll et al., 2001). Second, eradication of the wolf may have had an important impact on the ecosystems from which they were eliminated, which might help to explain the current distribution of species such as elk, deer, and coyotes. Reintroduction of wolves might be expected to shift those populations back towards their historic levels. Studies conducted in Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves there – which took place after Schmidt posed this intriguing question — appear to support this notion, demonstrating multiple and widespread examples of the wolf’s key role in restoring natural ecosystem dynamics.
Photo Credit: Lee Kirchevel
Today, there is another reason for interest in the wolf’s former range. Wolves dispersing from Idaho have been confirmed in Oregon, from an original lone female identified in 1999 to the more recent confirmations of adult pairs and packs with pups in 2008-2009. Wolves have also been confirmed in Washington state in recent years and, in both Washington and Oregon, reports exist of wolves in the Cascade range. This mountain backbone could provide a natural dispersal route that could extend into California, Nevada and neighboring states. At this time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans to recover wolves in California but this highly migratory species could reach the state on its own in the near future.
The California Wolf Center is currently supporting additional research on historical evidence of wolves in California.
Reintroduction of the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) Into California
(An analysis of the history of the gray wolf in North America, the effects of its reintroduction, and the subsequent conditions California faces.)
by Shawn Wilde, Matt Korkow, and Steven Held – November 12, 2008
University of Wyoming
The debate over the reintroduction of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) has ranged from Maine and Minnesota to Idaho and California. No wonder, as the gray wolf and its subspecies were once “the most widely distributed large mammals in North America.” (MacDonald, 2004) Currently the debate has tended towards California and the sustaining of a gray wolf population within its borders. In order to fully appreciate the complexities involved in this debate, it is important to understand the background and the history behind the gray wolf. Next, it is important to take into consideration the more recent introduction of the gray wolf into various regions of North America. Finally, it is important to take into consideration the ecological impact that the gray wolf has on local ecosystems. Understanding the gray wolf and all of the complexities that surround the issues relating to their reintroduction into California is necessary for their potential introduction into California.
The gray wolf is historically one of the most dominant predators in North America. In fact, “most Native Americans and Eskimos revered the gray wolf and tried to emulate its cunning and hunting abilities.” (U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), 1995) The demise of the gray wolf began with the introduction of European settlers to the New World. Prior to this, there were an estimated several thousand wolves scattered across the entire continent. Wolves’ ability to acclimatize and adapt to many environmental extremes led this particular species to thrive in conditions ranging in geography and climate from central Mexico to the North Pole. As early as 1630, bounties were to be had for the hides of a wolves. (Phillips, 2004) The perception was that wolves were responsible for heavy losses of livestock and were to be treated as a menace that had to be dealt with. Due to this perception “wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in United States history”. (DOI, 1995) It is known that in many areas the wolf was completely and nearly nearly exterminated. California falls into this category with all the rest of the wolves’ territory, being a place where the wolf was more or less eradicated by the mid 1940s. We can easily see how it was that the wolf came to become a nearly extinct species in North America.
In recent years, there have been efforts to revitalize the population of gray wolves in the United States. Foremost, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973. Within five years the gray wolf and many of its related species had been added to the list and plans for their recovery were being laid. (Phillips, 2004) One of the most significant events of reintroducing the gray wolf into the United States was the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone National Park (YNP). The wolf was the only animal missing from the Yellowstone ecosystem and many people felt that the wolf was absolutely necessary for the completion of the ecological picture. This issue was debated for years, until in 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were able to begin that process that would finally bring back wolves to the YNP. (DOI, 1995) California has been considering the reintroduction of the wolf for years. Much of northern California, an area already complicated with issues of cougar overpopulation, is seen as being a prime location for the reintroduction of the gray wolf. There is no limit to the number of places that the gray wolf could be reintroduced due to its effective ability to acclimatize itself to any locale.
The effect that a gray wolf has on an ecosystem is not fully understood. With the reintroduction in Yellowstone and central Idaha, scientists can better understand and predict the outcome of the reintroduction of the gray wolf into California. As wolf populations continue to increase, they will require a larger quantity of prey in order to sustain themselves. The common thought is that the increase in wolf population would drive a sharp decrease in the current large game populations such as elk. However, studies have shown that the effects on wild game populations are not as extreme as would be expected. The tendency of wolves to feed on the weak and injured of an elk herd actually strengthens the herd in the long run. As the weak are dispatched, the remaining resources are left for the stronger elk that have survived. The remaining elk are stronger and healthier resulting in “a greater turnover in the elk population.” (Wilmers, 2004) Another effect of a strong wolf population, that can be expected, is an increase in the availability of animal carcasses or carrion. This in effect will increase the availability of food for ravens, foxes, and other scavengers. California could expect, in this aspect, to see an increase in the amount of their smaller wildlife which would grow proportionately to the amount of carrion that they are regularly provided with.
In the adverse, other studies have shown that the decrease of large mammals, such as elk, attributes to a lower rate of vegetation growth. The decreased foraging by the elk stimulates less growth from the plants. For example, regions previously known to have high levels of plant growth in YNP are showing a significant decrease in plant growth. (Frank, 2008) The elk herds are being more selective in what they eat and are being more cautious about the locations they feel are safe to graze in. The “removal or reintroduction of predators may have important, cascading ramifications on basic ecological properties of managed ecosystems, beyond the direct effects of predators on prey.” (Frank, 2008) The introduction of a predator on the top of the food chain will greatly affect everything that it feeds on. If California maintains a wolf population, they can expect to see some of these ripple effects reach out into nearly all of the trophic levels that wolves come into contact with.
One of the largest concerns over the proposed reintroduction of wolves into California is from ranching operations. Ranchers fear wolf-livestock conflicts. “Gray wolves were extirpated from much of western North America due in part to [perceived] conflicts with domestic livestock.” (Oakley, Mack, and Murray, 2003) The present recovery plans into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho have carefully studied this and have allowed for management flexibility to mitigate livestock conflicts with wolves. “Currently, wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have caused less livestock damage than initially anticipated.” (Oakley, et al. 2003) There is a clear need however, for better understanding on the direct impact of how recolonizing wolves will affect livestock mortality.
The reintroduction of the wolf into various regions of North America has impacted the local ecosystems as wolf population increases. Specific to California, the wolf was nearly exterminated over sixty years ago and its reintroduction is an appeal to bring the California wilderness back into a natural balance. While the wolf is protected in California, it remains a matter of controversy between multiple government agencies, organizations, and civic groups. The majority of all case studies have shown that the gray wolf tends to thrive in the wild and is able to expand its realm outward from any ecosystem that it is placed in. In California, this ability of the gray wolf to expand its territories will cause some of the largest controversies as increased human and wolf interaction occurs. Population in the state of California being one of the highest in the country, they can surely expect that wolf and human activities will collide. The gray wolf will have a great effect on trophic levels that they become involved in. The only previous time in history that man and wolf have interacted on such a level did not end up as a successful one for the wolves. The reintroduction of the gray wolf in California is going to have a large impact on people and wildlife of California.