Gray wolves are no strangers to the Golden State. Their majestic howls echoed through our forests and rolled out into our Great Central Valley before American settlers even pushed west. But, like in so many other areas throughout the West, as California’s human population grew, its wolf population shrunk – drastically.
Wolves were driven from the lands they had called home for centuries – hunted, trapped and slaughtered, painted not as the great icons that they are, but as the vicious caricatures of folklore. Eventually, by 1925, gray wolves could no longer be heard anywhere in the state, and could be found only in small, scattered populations throughout the rest of the country.
Fortunately, people began to realize that America’s forests and canyonlands were missing wolves, that ecosystem health was declining in their absence, and that we were in danger of losing one of our country’s most iconic species.
In 1967, wolves were officially recognized by the federal government as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, wolf recovery has been an inspiring story of native species reintroduction and of the beauty and benefits that have come from the hard-won battle to see wolves return to the places where they once roamed freely.
The recovery of gray wolves in America has indeed proven beneficial to both our environment and to human society. Wolves are important predators that contribute to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Predators like wolves tend to hunt and cull old, sick and injured deer, elk and other grazers. This keeps these prey populations healthy and enhances the health and diversity of the plants other wildlife need to thrive. For example, wolves have helped reduce the intensity of elk grazing on berry producing shrubs in Yellowstone National Park, which has in turn provided additional food for grizzly bears.
Not only do gray wolves contribute ecosystem benefits, but they also bring benefits to regional economies. For example, wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone brings an estimated $35 million in annual tourist revenue to the region. That figure effectively doubles once the money filters through the local economy. Forty-four percent of Yellowstone visitors cite wolves as the species they most want to see.
Despite the obvious benefits of reintroduction, however, the success story of wolf recovery is not without its villains. In states where wolves have had their federal protection removed, state management has reignited past hostility toward wolves. In Idaho, for example, elected officials have stated their intention to drive their wolf population down as low as 150 animals. Instead of managing its wolf population in a sustainable manner, Idaho is trying to eliminate most of its wolves as quickly as possible.
Now, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protection for wolves throughout most of the rest of the country, gray wolves are once again at risk. Delisting would short-circuit wolf recovery in the Pacific West and would effectively mean giving up on one of our country’s most important and iconic species. Fortunately, California has an opportunity to play a meaningful role in helping the gray wolf continue to recover in the coming months and years.
At a California Fish and Game Commission meeting on April 16th, commission members decided to delay establishing state protections for gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), and won’t make a decision for 90 days. While we believe the gray wolf certainly fits the criteria for listing as an endangered species under CESA because it is in serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range in California, not all is lost for hopes of protecting wolves in the Golden State.
If the delayed decision does not result in a listing, the silver lining is that the Commission may use its regulatory authority to adopt measures that would make sure that wolves can thrive here. Defenders urged the commissioners to move expeditiously to adopt a strict prohibition on killing wolves in our state, which will be especially crucial in the event of federal delisting.
Defenders is also working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, other conservation organizations, agricultural and ranching interests and the hunting community to inform the development of this Wolf Conservation and Management Plan through the California Wolf Stakeholders Group. The Commission should adopt additional regulations that direct the Department’s management of wolves upon the completion of this state wolf plan.
We all remember when, in late 2011, a lone wolf known as OR-7 made his way to California after his species was driven from the state nearly 90 years ago. OR-7’s arrival was an exciting and historic event – and very rare for a species that has disappeared entirely from a state to return under its own power. It is only a matter of time before California once again boasts an established population of wolves. We must welcome them back and protect them so that they can thrive here as they once did.
In these early stages of recovery in states like California, our wildlife managers should observe the tragic example being set in places like Idaho, where wolves are now treated like vermin, and not allow these kinds of anti-wolf attitudes to cloud the truth: wolves are a native species that belong here, and Californians want them to return. Eighty-three percent of California voters polled agree that wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage and should be protected as they make their way back to their rightful place on our state’s landscape. California wildlife managers must decide not if, but how to protect gray wolves in the Golden State.
Pamela Flick is a California Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
A version of this post was originally published in Earth Island Journal, here.