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June 13, 2014
Viewpoints: Hard work remains to keep California's wolves safe

wolf.JPG(June 13 - By Amaroq Weiss, Special to The Bee)

The remarkable chain of events that set the stage for gray wolves to gain California Endangered Species Act protections last week seemed, at times, more cinematic than real.

From the first California appearance four years ago of the wolf OR7 after his wandering, 1,000-mile trek from eastern Oregon, to the discovery of his pups in southern Oregon just two days before the vote on protecting wolves, it's tempting to see some invisible hand of fate pushing events along.

But as a scientist and longtime wolf-recovery advocate now helping to craft a California wolf conservation and management plan, I know the toughest part of the journey is yet to come.

The fledgling wolf management plan in Oregon - where wolf attacks on livestock are down this spring despite a population that has tripled - is demonstrating that progress is possible when ranchers use nonlethal control methods such as hanging red flags on fences to scare away wolves, monitoring cattle herds on horseback and quickly removing livestock carcasses.

But the risks faced by wolves dispersing into new areas such as California are immense.

Some ranchers and elected officials in Northern California are on record saying they'll shoot dead any wolf they see. While that isn't the majority view, the short history of wolf recovery in the West makes clear that the vocal anti-wolf minority has taken a deadly toll.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully petitioned California to protect wolves, we verified 65 instances from 1981 to 2014 of individual wolves dispersing outside core recovery areas. And 81 percent of the dispersing wolves were killed, a quarter of them gunned down by people who stated they shot the animal because they thought it was a coyote, or that they knew it was a wolf but fired anyway.

Perhaps even more dangerous to wolves over the long haul is the cadre of livestock lobbyists and politicians who are constantly pushing anti-wolf legislation both at the federal and state levels. Pressure from those groups not only led to Congress voting in 2011 to drop federal protections for wolves in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions, but played an important role in the pending federal proposal to drop protections for wolves across most of the lower 48 states.

And those same pressures are sure to be felt in California, where the 6 million or so cattle and sheep sometimes seem to have more political clout than the state's nearly 38 million people.

Those realities make it all the more commendable that the California Fish and Game Commission showed the wisdom and fortitude to follow the science, not the politics, and extend state protections to wolves. It was a brave and correct decision to ignore a deeply flawed recommendation by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to deny those protections.

Still, given the politically charged opposition to wolf recovery that clearly empowers some people to take wolf management into their own hands, it's a remarkable feat when a lone, dispersing wolf is able to buck the odds and establish a new pack.

That's why just two weeks ago, wildlife managers and wolf advocates were celebrating the news that for the first time since wolves lost federal protections in the northern Rocky Mountain states three years ago, a dispersing wolf from Oregon had somehow made it through the anti-wolf gantlet known as Idaho, where nearly 1,000 wolves have been killed by hunters, trappers and state regulators since 2011.

The celebration of the wolf's safe arrival in Montana was short-lived. Last week, Montana wildlife officials announced the 2-year-old male wolf had been killed by a poacher.

The lone wolf's tragic death makes it all the more amazing that OR7 has been cagey enough to buck the odds for four years and counting and throw open the door to wolf recovery in southern Oregon and California.

Amaroq Weiss is a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.