The wolves are back in California. So did the “crazy” rumors.

Kent Loudon, a wolf biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, woke up one morning last year to a flurry of text messages from ranchers in the state’s northernmost county. He was asking about a post with very specific details circulating through Facebook urging people to find a red truck that was transporting breeding wolves along Route 97 to Siskiyou County, California. Loudon was not surprised. This wasn’t the first post of its kind, and it won’t be the last.

“Wolves make people crazy,” he said of these persistent rumours. “And for the record: No, we don’t import wolves. That never happened.”

Wolves do not need to be landed in California because they will come back on their own. The state’s last native wild wolves were killed by a hunter in Lassen County in Northern California in 1924. Since 2011, a string of attractive dogs have come and gone. Now it appears that in the far northern counties of the state, there are wolf families 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 likely expect to have wolves calling the state home for years to come.

Their return motivates conservationists and scientists like Loudon to combat misinformation and the deep politicization of species. At the same time, biologists are learning more about their habits in an effort to help humans and wolves to coexist.

Centuries ago, North America had 250,000 to 2 million gray wolves. When settlers arrived, they quickly decimated the original wolf prey of bison, elk, and deer, then replaced them with livestock. The California wolves were no exception.

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

When wolves search for their mates and territory, they disperse from their flock on wonderful journeys. A wolf named OR-7 roamed California for 15 months starting in December 2011. His radio collar recorded nearly 4,000 miles in his quest for a partner; He eventually found one in Oregon, his home state. One of his daughters, OR-54, has traveled more than 8,700 miles, including a trip to the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Last year, a two-year-old lone wolf broke records when it traveled across California’s central coast, the first to do so in more than a century. The wolf, named OR-93, roamed from Mount Hood in Oregon to San Luis Obispo County, California. In November, he was hit by a car 50 miles north of Los Angeles after traveling more than 1,000 miles across the state.

While scientists believe other uninhabited wolves have been roaming vast swathes of the state largely undetected, wolves didn’t stay in California until recently.

In 2015, the state briefly became home to the first modern wolf pack when a pair of wolves from Oregon arrived in the Shasta County area. Shasta bucks were the first wild wolves to settle in California since the species was wiped out in the state, which occurred in the same area. When the Shasta Pack mysteriously disappeared months later after one litter, California was once again free of wolves.

In 2017, a new pack of wolves settled over the 500-mile area where Western Lassen and North Plumas counties meet. The “Lassen Pack” has been a hit at the craps every year since its arrival. In November 2020, two new wolves arrived in the state, creating a “pair of whales” — and their new cubs — that now occupy 480 square miles in eastern Siskiyou province. Last May, biologists discovered a “Beckwourth Pack” in eastern Plumas County, led by a two-year-old female Lassen Pack.

There are an estimated 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states. Current California wolves are dispersed from three modern groups: Yellowstone, Idaho, and northwest Montana. Wolves entered Montana on their own but were hunted relentlessly. It was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho though Canada in the 1990s. From there some spread to Washington state. The first package arrived from Oregon in 2009. The Southern California trip was a must.

“For the most part, California really laid the welcome mat for wolves. When OR-7 came along in 2011, it was a massive festive moment,” said Amaruk Weiss, a wolf biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We saw the same rise in excitement with every new wolf that came along. to California. People are drawn to the story of a single individual searching for a mate or going on an adventure in a place where his kind hasn’t existed in years.”

As attractive as California may be, 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 remote north of the state has doubled since then.

And where there are people who live, work and farm, wolves often have a bad reputation.

“Wolves have been politicized because they are in the middle of this rural-urban divide, and this division exists in the country between one set of facts and another,” Loudon said.

The gray wolf was removed from the federal list of endangered species in the final months of the Trump administration. Weeks later, in February 2021, hunters from Wisconsin killed 218 wolves in 60 hours, exceeding the one-season hunting quota of 119. This wiped out nearly 20% of all wolves in the entire state in less than three days ( Poaching may have killed more.) Wildlife groups and Ojibwe tribes filed a lawsuit in response, and the November 2021 hunt was suspended.

Then in February, a federal judge in California reinstated federal protections for wolves, which would end hunting operations like those in Wisconsin for the time being.

But even with the restoration of protection, the ruling excludes wolves in most areas of the Northern Rockies. Because of their high 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 would still be under the administration of their respective states.

In 2021, Idaho lawmakers signed into law a bill that allows virtually no restrictions on how the state’s approximately 1,500 wolves are hunted, and buys unlimited wolf hunting permits. In addition to approving neck traps, bait, and night hunting, a new law in Montana allows bounties to be offered to wolves, much like early 20th century practices that threatened the species in the first place.

In recent months, Yellowstone National Park officials were alarmed to learn that at least 20 gray wolves had been killed after roaming outside park boundaries on state lands in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. This is the highest number of deaths in a hunting season since this species was reintroduced to the area in 1995. Now, there are less than 100 wolves in the park.

“The wolf is a substitute for people’s hatred of government interference because they are protected. People see protecting wolves as a symbol of everything they hate from the government telling them what they can and can’t do,” Weiss said.

In contrast, California, a state with very rural and very urban areas, has one of the most endangered species in the state. Killing a wolf in California is a crime.

When wolves roam, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Agency tracks their whereabouts and collects 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 equipped with satellite modems attached to neck collars. The California and Oregon Fish and Wildlife Departments regularly talk about individual wolves and share their collar data. Non-adherent wolves sometimes appear on tracking cameras or through DNA samples in California, usually in Lassen, Modoc, Plumas and Siskiyou counties.

Wolves even managed to survive the Dixie wildfires in California, the second largest in the state’s history, which ravaged its territory and burned nearly a million acres last summer.

But this does not mean that everyone is happy with the return of the wolves. An important part of Loudon’s job is to fight wolves’ notoriety. It attempts to break down barriers by presenting information in a non-threatening way that allows people to make their own decisions. Sometimes it works.

Dusty de Braga is a contract shepherd who manages livestock across 200,000 acres of Lassen and Plumas counties. When he first heard that wolves were back in California, he assumed they were imported.

“It looked fishy to me,” he said. After seeing the data about the distance the collared wolves had traveled, he changed his mind.

“I now think it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities in which they naturally dispersed,” he said, but added that plenty of other people remain convinced that state wildlife officials brought them in.

De Braga has seen wolves almost regularly since their arrival. It is estimated that among his herds and herds of his closest neighbors, wolves have killed more than 20 cows and calves in the past five years. Some, but not all, have been confirmed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Wolves are new here. When they are new they are the hardest. Anytime wolves kill something, that’s what’s on the paper. For 363 days a year, that’s okay. Two days wolves fail, and they make the news.” It reinforces the idea that they are this truly devastating creature, and the good news is that wolves are usually nowhere near that bad.”

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.


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