New Wolf in California Raises Stakes for Predator Agency Dispute

Gray wolf in Yellowstone | Photo: Jeremy Weber/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California wildlife biologists say they have evidence that a new gray wolf has been visiting the state, and that should make north state counties take a hard look at their agreements with a controversial federal predator control agency.

The new possible-wolf, dubbed "Siskiyou" by some wildlife advocates, was first seen by members of the public in a remote area in Siskiyou County and reported as a possible wolf to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). In June, CDFW biologists found large tracks on a nearby dirt road that they couldn't rule out as having been made by a wolf, then placed camera traps along that section of road. The resulting photos show what appears to be a large, dark wolf.

Scat samples taken to the lab by CDFW proved not to have enough intact DNA to provide a positive identification, but based on the photos and tracks CDFW biologists are pretty sure the animal is a gray wolf, the second to visit California since 1924. Gray wolves are coming back to the state, in other words. And that makes California counties' arrangement with a controversial federal agency a whole lot more complicated.

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Here's one of the photos the CDFW cameras captured:

Camera trap photo of "Siskiyou," likely a gray wolf visiting Siskiyou County | Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

It's no surprise that gray wolves are coming back into California: the government's been expecting them since well before OR-7's famous visit to the extreme northern part of the state. (This new wolf isn't OR-7, who is radio-collared and accounted for. He's alive and well and raising two litters in southern Oregon in what biologists now call the "Rogue Pack," after the nearby river.)

Wolves from Idaho have been moving into Oregon for some time, and it's always been assumed that those wolves wouldn't stop at the Oregon-California line. That's part of why CDFW and the state's Fish and Game Commission worked to list the wolf as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act in 2014. Even though OR-7 had settled down in Oregon at that point, it was a safe bet wolves would be back. As the Obama administration has spent the last several years working to remove the gray wolf from the federal list of endangered species, that would have left wolves like "Siskiyou" unprotected once they arrived in California.

Wolves are legally protected now in the Golden State by both state and federal law. But that doesn't mean they're out of danger. Under the so-called "McKittrick Policy," people who shoot a protected wolf can escape prosecution and punishment under federal law by saying they thought the animal was a coyote.

That's how "Echo," the wolf who became the first wolf in Northern Arizona in more than 70 years when she showed up north of the Grand Canyon, met her end: killed by a hunter who claimed he thought he was shooting at a coyote.

The McKittrick Policy applies only to the Federal Endangered Species Act; California state case law regarding protected wild wolves is necessarily sparse, seeing as there haven't been any California Endangered Species Act-listed wolves in the state until this year. But you can bet the first shooter caught harming a California wolf will try to use the McKittrick argument nonetheless.

And that may even be true of the agency responsible for shooting more coyotes than any other, the controversial and secretive Wildlife Services. In fiscal year 2014 alone, Wildlife Services killed 61,702 coyotes, most of them in the western United States, most of them at the behest of ranchers fearing for their livestock.

It's not just coyotes. Wildlife Services' tally sheet for animals killed during the last fiscal year includes cowbirds, cardinals, chickens, egrets, dogs, cats, bobcats, bald eagles, golden eagles, rhesus monkeys, hawks, herons, jaegers, jays, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and a whole lot of other species. The Agency's total self-reported tally for animals killed in fiscal year 2014 is 2,713,570 animals in 472 distinct species.

That total includes 322 gray wolves, one of which was killed "unintentionally." That would be a different unintentionally killed wolf than the I mentioned here, involving a highly endangered Mexican wolf in new Mexico, reportedly killed in error by a Wildlife Services employee who claimed he thought the wolf was -- you guessed it -- a coyote.

Wildlife Services' relationship with Northern California counties has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In April, Mendocino County agreed to conduct an environmental review before renewing its long-term contract with Wildlife Services. Sonoma County stopped working with Wildlife Services in 2013, while Marin County severed ties with the agency 15 years ago. Marin's alternative program of reducing conflict between wild predators and livestock has worked well, according to local ranchers.

But Humboldt County decided to renew its contract with Wildlife Services in July, 2014. Humboldt is just a few days' wolf-saunter from neighboring Siskiyou County, where the possible wolf-sightings took place earlier this year. And that raises the possibility that Humboldt's contract with Wildlife Services may well end tragically for wolves. As agency staff attempt to reduce Humboldt's coyote population, cases of "mistaken identity" seem inevitable.

Not that those programs don't end tragically for the coyotes even if all goes as planned. Here's a pair of statistics that cut to the heart of what's wrong with our predator management policies. Wildlife Services reported that it killed more than 61,000 coyotes in Fiscal Year 2014, a higher tally than that for any other mammal. In the same period, the agency killed more than 10,000 squirrels of various species -- three quarters of them California ground squirrels, a species that is ordinarily kept in check by coyotes when coyotes aren't eradicated from an area.

We're paying Wildlife Services to kill coyotes and we're paying Wildlife Services to kill the rodents the coyotes would have eaten.

Changes are looming for this most secretive of agencies. This week the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wildlife Services' predator killing programs were subject to environmental review requirements, a ruling that may end up shining a little light on the agency's procedures.

In the meantime, there's even more reason for Humboldt and other California counties in the potential range of gray wolves to think very carefully about their relationship with Wildlife Services. Predator management policies such as Marin County's are a whole lot easier to submit to the kind of environmental review the California Endangered Species Act requires -- in part because there isn't a secretive federal agency actively trying to hide the smallest details of how the policy works.

At the very least, counties in wolf country ought to quiz Wildlife Services staff on how to tell a wolf from a coyote.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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