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Should Gray Wolves Be Declared Endangered in California? Agency Says 'No,' But That Might Mean 'Yes'

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OR-7's cousin OR-10 in Oregon | Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

California's wildlife agency this week recommended to not protect gray wolves under the state's endangered species law. But here's where it gets interesting: It instead suggested that there are other means to protect the species, should a population move back to California.

That's according to documents filed on the agency's website Thursday, but an informal announcement of the decision that listing the wolf is "not warranted" came at Wednesday's Fish and Game Commission meeting from CDFW director Charlton "Chuck" Bonham. "This decision has been weighing on me for weeks. It's possible I may lose friends over this," Bonham said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I ask everyone to read the documents before passing judgment."

We did just that, and we found something interesting. It seems that CDFW may quietly be hinting that the Commission should consider listing the wolf anyway.

The decision caps a year-long review of the wolf's status in California prompted by a 2012 petition by conservation groups to protect the state's part-time wolf from Oregon, as well as any other members of the species who may visit or colonize the state. Interest in protecting the wolf has been heightened by recent federal attempts to remove the species from remaining protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision on federal delisting is expected early this year.

"The state wildlife agency's recommendation against listing defies logic," said Amaroq Weiss, wolf campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. "California was once wolf country, and these beautiful animals, now beginning to return to the state, deserve the highest level of protection to ensure they can survive here without persecution."

CBD was one of the wildlife protection groups that petitioned to list the wolf under CESA in 2012, along with Big Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Information Center, and the
Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Instead of listing under gray wolves the California Endangered Species Act, CDFW is formally recommending other avenues for protection, which Bonham, in an unusually long and poignant introductory memo to his agency's determination, suggests be implemented as soon as possible:

  • Adding the gray wolf to the state's Species of Special Concern list, which Bonham says CDFW will do immediately;
  • Completing the California Wolf Plan, which began as a response to OR-7's (the wolf who wandered in from Oregon) first visit to California in 2011. ;
  • Using Commission powers under the Fish and Game Code to prohibit harming OR-7 or other gray wolves even if they eat livestock;
  • Revisiting CESA listing down the road.

But the odd thing is, Bonham even hints that Commissioners might reasonably disregard CDFW's finding and list the wolf anyway. His memo states that the agency concluded its hands were tied by both the language of the law and the 12-month deadline for recommendation, forcing the "not warranted" finding. And then he goes on to point out that the Fish and Game Commission, which is an appointed body independent from CDFW, has a lot more latitude to determining whether to list a species. Bonham's memo seems, if you read between the lines, to be a request for the Commission to set the agency finding aside and list the wolf.

OR-7 in California | Photo: CDFW / Richard Shinn

How are the CDFW's hands tied? Conservation biology has evolved since CESA was signed into law. While the law protects species and subspecies that are in immediate danger of extinction, conservation biologists have increasingly begun to focus on threats to individual populations. Protecting a diverse group of different populations of a species is what guarantees both biological diversity and the long-term viability of a species.

Many wildlife populations are under incredible threat, and losing them one after another erodes the survivability of the species to which they belong. Conservation law's traditional focus on species often causes people to assume that losing local populations doesn't matter as long as other populations still exist elsewhere. That couldn't be farther from the truth, though: for many threatened species that were once widespread, their final extinction is merely the extinction of the last local population. Their fate may have been sealed long before with the loss of a minor local population that pushed the species below the threshold of viability.

CDFW's finding on gray wolves discusses the concept of in some depth, pointing out that depending on whose definition you use, OR-7 may or may not constitute a "population" of gray wolves. He's a population of one, which means -- despite his apparent best efforts to find a mate -- he's not part of a breeding population.

If OR-7 is taken to be a population of one, then the wolf isn't extinct in California, at least when he crosses the line from Oregon. If your definition of "extinct" quite reasonably assumes a breeding population, then the wolf is extinct in California until OR-7 finds a girlfriend and settles down to raise a family.

It's not a particularly tenuous possibility that OR-7, or a wolf to follow, might arrive with a mate or an already-established pack. Bonham's memo, in fact, says that it's "reasonable to conclude that California may have a functioning pack of wolves within ten years."

But CESA was written to protect California species in danger of "winking out" and becoming extinct in the state. Its framers apparently didn't anticipate that some species, like the gray wolf, might wink back in to California. And because CESA's criteria for listing don't cover species not now existing in the state but which will likely come back and need protection, says Bonham, CDFW's hands are tied.

But then Bonham says something that, while hidden beneath a layer of CDFW memorandum speak, is extraordinary enough to be worth quoting here in full, with my own emphasis added at the end:

The Commission is likely to be presented with the legal argument from some constituents that the definitions of endangered and threatened under CESA control the listing decision. Neither the Act nor regulations define extinct. But, taken literally, the Department appreciates that one individual animal of a species may qualify as at risk of extinction, which could necessitate listing. Similarly, it may be argued that listing is legally inappropriate because the gray wolf remains functionally "extinct" in California in the absence of a resident breeding population. I feel compelled to point out these legal arguments. It is important for the Commission to consider them. Yet, for our scientific staff there is a significant distinction between extinct, which for wildlife managers means a species no longer exists on the planet, and extirpation, which means the species is no longer in a particular part of their range, but still exists. From this perspective, the gray wolf is extirpated from California but not extinct from the Earth. The legal view under CESA may not similarly distinguish between these terms in the situation of gray wolf in California. These important legal and policy issues will likely be before the Commission. At the CESA process step of the Commission's decision to list or not, the law allows the Commission to consider information beyond just the Department's scientific recommendation and status evaluation report, which is more narrowly prescribed.

Bonham would seem to be saying here that the law hasn't kept up with the science, and going as close as he legally can to asking the Commission to consider listing the wolf despite CDFW's finding. It's no wonder he asked us all to read the documents first before rushing to judgment.

The Commission will likely address the wolf issue at its meeting in April.

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