Good news for those of us who've been crossing fingers that the wolf sighted in Northern California earlier this year might stick around: it looks like he or she has a family.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has confirmed that a group of at least two adult gray wolves and five pups seems to be inhabiting the northernmost reaches of the state. The group, which CDFW has dubbed the Shasta Pack, was photographed by trail cameras deployed by CDFW in an attempt to learn more about the wolf sighted earlier this year.
"This news is exciting for California," said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director. "We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state and it appears now is the time."
The last known gray wolf indigenous to California -- up until these pups were born sometime this spring -- was shot by a hunter in 1924. The gray wolf OR-7, who made global headlines when he traipsed across the state line from Oregon in 2011, hasn't been in California for more than a year. He's stayed put in southwestern Oregon with his mate and two litters of offspring, his family known collectively (and colorfully) as the Rogue Pack.
It was OR-7's two visits to California that sparked a push by wolf advocates for CDFW to list the gray wolf on the state's Endangered Species List. The California Fish and Game Commission made that listing final in June 2014. The Shasta Pack is also protected as an Endangered Species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, though Obama administration moves to delist the wolf nationwide provided extra motivation for those who sought state listing for gray wolves.
Wolves in Alaska, Idaho, and Montana no longer enjoy federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, and the same is true for wolves ranging in parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington.
CDFW is being tight-lipped about the Shasta Pack's location, though a post on the agency's blog confirms the pack was photographed in the vicinity of this year's earlier sightings, which took place in Siskiyou County. The secrecy is likely intended to help prevent ideologically driven wolf opponents and illegal trophy hunters from harassing or injuring the Shasta Pack, though it will also serve to keep wolf admirers from swarming the area and squeeing the animals to death as well.
Siskiyou County is well placed to serve as a jumping off point for wolves migrating farther south in California: the county's forests are connected to likely wolf habitat along the North Coast as well as in the Northern Sierra Nevada.
Wildlife advocates reacted to the news with jubilation. "Fourteen years ago, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors was considering legislation that would have been detrimental to wolves," said Amaroq Weiss, wolf campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. "I testified against that legislation, and said 'whether you pass this law or not, the wolves are coming back.'"
"Fourteen years later, California has its first wolf family in almost a century," said Weiss. "This is a great day for wolf conservation. A great day."
Citing a recent possible sighting of a wolf in South Dakota's Black Hills, the Center on Wednesday urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct public education programs to remind hunters and others of the differences between gray wolves and coyotes. A number of gray wolves have been shot and killed by hunters claiming they thought the animals were coyotes, which are not protected. Coyotes are smaller, lighter, and "pointier" than wolves.
For the record: an earlier version of this piece suggested that OR-7's visits to the state prompted CDFW to propose listing the wolf under the California Endangered Species Act. OR-7's visit actually sparked a campaign by wildlife advocates, including a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups, to list the wolf. CDFW found listing the gray wolf was "not warranted," but hinted extremely broadly that it was only doing so because its hands were tied by the letter of California law, and urged the Fish and Game Commission to consider listing the wolf anyway.