We Know a Little More About California's Wolves' Family Tree

Pups in the Shasta Pack in August | Photo: CDFW

Wildlife biologist and fans of the gray wolf reacted with delight in August when state officials confirmed that a new wolf pack had taken up residence in Northern California. Now, after examining DNA samples from pack members, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has determined that the pack's alpha female has roots in northeastern Oregon.

The Shasta Pack, California's first wild wolf pack in nearly a century, was detected after eyewitness reports came into CDFW of a dark-colored canid wandering the woods of Siskiyou County. The agency set up trail cameras in a likely location; those cameras caught conclusive evidence that a new family of wolves had set up housekeeping in Siskiyou County. The pack, dubbed the "Shasta Pack," includes at least two adults and five pups.

Biologists from CDFW now say they've obtained DNA samples from three of the wolves -- the breeding female and a pup of each gender -- and compared the samples to a wolf DNA database. The results show that the Shasta Pack's alpha female traveled a very long way to start her new family.

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Along with the results of the Shasta Pack's DNA testing, CDFW produced a short video containing trail camera captures of the Shasta Pack pups, which we thought we'd share with you just because.

CDFW biologists got the wolves' DNA in about as non-invasive a fashion as possible: they scooped poop. According to CDFW, scat samples collected from the area were sent to the Laboratory for Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Genetics at the University of Idaho, which maintains that database of DNA samples from wolves in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia.

The lab extracted DNA from the scat, and confirmed that the samples came from three distinct wolves. CDFW notes that two of the wolves were identified as pups due to the size of their scat.

According to her DNA that alpha female, probably more accurately known as "Mom," was born into the Inmaha Pack of gray wolves currently hanging on to a territory near Enterprise, Oregon, about 500 miles northeast of Siskiyou County as the crow flies.

Without a DNA sample from the adult male, biologists aren't able to venture a guess as to Dad's origins, though it's likely he arrived from the same general direction. The Inmaha pack is also the birth family of OR-7, the adult male wolf who made history when he arrived in northeastern California in December 2011, becoming the first wild wolf to wander the California landscape since 1924.

That makes the Shasta Pack's mom a sibling of OR-7, who is now raising his own family (the Rogue Pack) a day's lope north of the California line in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The Rogue Pack added a second litter of pups to the family in 2015, with at least two pups bringing that pack's total known number to seven wolves.

Gray wolves have been protected under the California Endangered Species Act since June 2014, when the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list the species as Endangered. That listing came in the wake of OR-7's much-heralded visit; though there were no wolves in the state at the time of the listing, biologists and other experts agreed that their repopulating the state from Oregon was just a matter of time.

Gray wolves in California also enjoy the protection of listing as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, though that's not true of all wolves in the U.S. A highly politically charged movement to delist the wolf has won partial support from the Obama administration, which has stripped protection from the wolves in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Utah, Oregon, and Washington. The possibility that wolves would be delisted throughout their range was partly responsible for spurring the state listing.

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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