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How Will Delisting Affect California's Part-Time Wolf Population?

Soon to lose Endangered Species protection? | Photo: MacNeil Lyons, National Park Service/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of determining whether to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species list, and the proposal has emotions running high. Wildlife defenders are outraged outraged that Endangered Species Act protection might be stripped from the wolf, while those fearful of the species have been producing frankly inflammatory videos and other material to encourage the public to support delisting.

If the gray wolf is delisted, states with wolves will almost certainly see an increase in wolf shootings by hunters and by gunmen acting as "wildlife control" agents for state and federal agencies. Wolf supporters are worried that the wolf's recovery and reintroduction could be undone by an increase in shootings.

Meanwhile, most Californians have watched raptly over the last two years as a single male wolf, OR-7, conducted his own wolf reintroduction by wandering into the northeast corner of California. What would delisting mean for OR-7, and for other wolves who might decide to move to California?

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There are very few observers who claim the delisting proposal is grounded in science rather than politics. The proposal to strip Endangered Species Act protection from the gray wolf is just the latest in a series of actions by the federal government that have removed wolf protections a bit at a time.

The Obama administration announced in June that it would try to delist the wolf across its entire range. The most serious blow to wolf protection before that announcement was an April 2011 rider to a Congressional budget bill delisting wolf populations in Montana and Idaho, as well as parts of Utah, Washington, and Oregon. A year later, the wolf's Wyoming population was delisted, and USFWS dropped protection from the Great Lakes populations as well.

In states where the wolf lost protection, shootings have been on the rise. Some of these have been by freelance hunters, such as the Wyoming hunter who shot a Yellowstone wolf and displayed it strapped to the roof of his car, which he parked in the relatively eco-friendly resort town of Jackson Hole.

And other shootings have happened on the government dime, as for example via the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Wildlife Services" department, which engages in aerial shooting of wolves -- sometimes, chillingly, after capturing and radio-tagging a wolf and releasing it so that the wolf can lead shooters back to its pack.

Delisting has already been devastating to wolf populations in the affected states -- the Lamar pack in Yellowstone, long featured in calendars and YouTube videos like the one below, is thought to have been wiped out in the last few months.

Populations not yet delisted have so far retained their status because their survival is even more tenuous than in the core Northern Rockies and Great Lakes states. Wolves in Washington and Oregon aren't expected to survive delisting by very long, and the tiny reintroduced population of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico -- a couple dozen individuals at most, surrounded by people who despise them -- might be gone startlingly quickly if it loses Federal protection.

But what about California?

Until late 2011 when OR-7 sauntered into the state from Oregon, California was without wild wolves for a very long time. (OR-7 is back in Oregon now, having left the state in March of this year.) There's plenty of evidence that wolves roamed the entire state before the advent of firearms. Native languages throughout the length and breadth of the state had words for "wolf" that were distinct from those languages words for "coyote" and "dog," suggesting that wolves were present at least on occasion throughout the state.

They may not have been common, however: Physical evidence of California wolves is sparse. California's Department of Fish and Wildlife notes just two verified museum specimens of gray wolves confirmed to have been "collected" in California. Had wolves been thick on the ground, we'd likely have more.

Regardless of how many wolves inhabited pre-contact California, we know that the last confirmed wolf sighting in the state before OR-7 took place in Lassen County. That sighting ended badly for the wolf, which is now one of those two museum specimens.

So the state of California hasn't had a lot of reason to pass wolf management laws. Nonetheless, as wolves began to move southward in Oregon even before OR-7's visits, CDFW (called Fish and Game until 2013) started to discuss possible rules in anticipation of wolves coming back to California.

Ironically, the wolf's protection under the Endangered Species Act seems to have removed some of the urgency from the need to craft state rules for wolf management. As any wolf entering the state would have been protected under ESA, that took pressure off CDFW as it crafted wolf rules. A CDFW action plan for wolf management published in 2012, before the Obama administration's delisting proposal, crafted scenarios that relied heavily on population modeling, inter-agency strategy meetings, and public education. The strategies nowhere mention rulemaking, legislation, or law enforcement.

Wolves aren't quite absent from California law. The state's Fish and Game Code requires owners to register captive wolves that pose a potential threat to others with the appropriate local authorities. (That law also applies to elephants and non-human primates.)

More troublingly, wolves are classified by default as belonging to the category "non-game mammals." As sections 4150 and 4152 of the Fish and Game Code state, "All mammals occurring naturally in California which are not game mammals, fully protected mammals, or fur-bearing mammals, are non-game mammals."

The good news is that killing non-game mammals in the state of California is prohibited by law except under certain circumstances. The bad news is that perceived threats to public safety or property fall under those limited circumstances. Wolf opponents have made a lot of political hay recently talking up the threat wolves pose to humans, but in the entire history of human occupation of North America there have been just two recorded human fatalities that could possibly have been inflicted by gray wolves. (Both cases involved wolves that had been habituated to eating garbage, and one may actually have been a bear mauling.)

Perceived threats to livestock are more plausible, but even here the rhetoric outstrips reality. According to CDFW, a new population of wolves in California would likely increase livestock losses by a factor somewhere around 1 percent, as most wolves show a marked preference for elk and deer, and the state certainly has enough deer to go around.

Nonetheless, it's entirely likely that OR-7 and his cousins might find themselves at the unpleasant end of a rifle barrel should they venture back into California without Endangered Species Act protection.

There's always state protection, of course. In 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups petitioned the state Fish and Game Commission to list the Gray Wolf as an Endangered Species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). In October 2012, the Commission agreed to consider the wolf for listing, and its decision is expected in February 2014. In the meantime, candidate species enjoy full protection under CESA while their case is being considered.

But there's bad news: the Commission's agreeing to grant the wolf candidate status was explicitly based on OR-7's presence in the state. The decision spelled it out:

A single, migrating wolf entered California from Oregon in 2012 and is the only member of his species currently alive in the state. His elimination, from any cause, will result in the extirpation of the species within the state. Imminent human threats to his survival include: illegal take, vehicle collisions, and exposure to diseases from domestic animals. Pursuant to subdivision (a)(2) of Section 2074.2 of the Fish and Game Code, the aforementioned species is hereby declared a candidate species as defined by Section 2068 of the Fish and Game Code.

OR-7 left California in March 2013, and unless he or another wolf returns to the state, it may well be that the Fish and Game Commission will decide no listing is necessary.

And that would mean that wolves coming back into the state after February might have no protection other than their "non-game mammal" status, which simply requires a rancher and his buddies in the local Sheriff's Department to get their "dead calf" stories straight when they decide to use a passing wolf for target practice.

Information on the federal delisting proposal, and instructions for commenting, can be found on the USFWS website.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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