Gray wolves begin to rediscover the lands they once called home.
In the summer of 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife made the thrilling announcement that a family of wolves had made their home in the Golden State. The announcement was spurred by sightings of the first pack of wolves to be spotted in the state in almost a century.
Named the Shasta Pack because of their discovery in southeastern Siskiyou County near Mount Shasta, the family of gray wolves was made up of two adult parents and their five pups.
Through DNA analysis of scat samples, scientists determined that both adult wolves were members of the Imnaha Pack in northeast Oregon and related to OR-7, who after his visits to the state, settled in southern Oregon and started the Rogue Pack.
The excitement over a new pack of wolves having taken up residence in the state was quickly overshadowed by their abrupt disappearing act.
A Shocking Development
Alarmingly, the Shasta Pack went missing and has not been seen since May of 2016, when an image of a single juvenile was capture by a remote trail camera. California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials don’t believe any foul play is involved in their having gone off the radar, but their abandonment of their breeding grounds is unusual for an established pack. Officials continue to search for the missing pack. Unfortunately, none of the Shasta Pack is collared which makes the search all the more difficult.
However, a spark of good news was announced just this week that one of the young wolves was spotted in an unlikely place: northwestern Nevada. DNA tests of scat left in the area near Fox Mountain, about 20 miles east of the border with California, recently confirmed that a young male from the Shasta Pack was in Nevada last November.
The whereabouts of the other Shasta Pack members remains unclear, but news of a spotting in Nevada carries hope that the pack is thriving and that some members have even made their own journeys to new territories.
The sighting in Nevada is similarly remarkable for a state that has also been without a confirmed wolf in nearly a century. Whether or not the male wolf came alone, which is most likely the case, the trek shows the drive gray wolves have to disperse to suitable areas to call home and the need for states to be able to address and protect these sojourners upon their arrival in a new land.
Reestablishing the Pack
Discovery of the Shasta Pack demonstrates that the efforts to restore wolves to the Pacific West are gaining ground—literally and figuratively.
While the historical extent and numbers of gray wolves in California are not known for sure, there are accounts of wolves in several areas throughout the state. What is more certain is that the species was driven to extinction in the state when the last known wild wolf was killed in Lassen County in 1924. Other populations across the U.S. followed suit suffering near destruction by the mid-1930s. In 1974, the species was officially listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In an effort to bolster the wolf’s recovery in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reintroduced gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park as well as central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.
The Shasta Pack, like the other packs of wolves originating in Oregon and parts of Washington, are descendants of the population reintroduced by the FWS into central Idaho. Their discovery in California signals these reintroduced populations are on the move and naturally dispersing throughout their historical range. The significance of the Shasta Pack to California’s efforts to protect endangered wolf populations as they naturally disperse throughout their native ranges cannot be understated.
The Call of the Wild
The call of the wild is a very real impulse for pack animals like the gray wolf. The need to move away from their birthing grounds to start a new life in a new land is not merely a voyage of discovery and a testing of one’s mettle, it is a natural instinct that serves many purposes for a species’ health and survival.
Dispersal is an inherent response to competition over food and mating opportunities, environmental disruptions, social aggression and habitat availability. It is important for population regulation and diversity, social organization and colonization.
Wolves require large, continuous areas to move around in that include forests and mountain terrain. Suitable habitat must have sufficient access to prey, protection from excessive persecution, and areas for denning and taking shelter. As their populations in the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions continue to recover, wolves will naturally disperse into territories they once inhabited or new areas that have become suitable for their survival.
Like California and Nevada, most of these places will not have seen wolves in decades. It is critically important that states with the potential to see dispersing wolves entering their borders, like Colorado and Utah, are prepared to protect these endangered animals and have clear plans in place for how to deal with visiting and homesteading wolves, as well as educational outreach for citizens and ranchers on how to coexist with this returning neighbor. Defenders has been at the forefront of important coexistence work for decades, and we stand ready to help state wildlife management agencies and other interested stakeholders employ nonlethal tools and methods to reduce conflicts with wolves.
Protecting Gray Wolves Throughout Their Natural Range
In both California and Nevada, the gray wolf still retains its federal protection status under the Endangered Species Act. It is therefore illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect wolves (or attempt to do any such acts) in these states and in other areas where wolves are fully protected by the ESA.
Federal protections under the ESA in several states, including Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have been rescinded by federal legislation and court decisions. Other states, including Utah, Oregon and Washington, only have federal protections in certain areas of their state.
If gray wolves are ever going to recover, they need to be assured of protection under the ESA. In 2013, there was a regulatory proposal to delist gray wolves, except for the Mexican gray wolf subspecies, in the lower 48 states under the federal statute, but so far no official decision has been made. A premature federal delisting could spell tragedy for a fragile species on the rebound. A ruling to delist gray wolves would mean turning over management decisions to the states, some of which don’t have state plans in place to protect these endangered species.
Preserving the Endangered Species Act
Not unlike the wildlife it seeks to protect, the ESA has been under intense threat. The ESA was the target of more than 130 legislative attacks during the 114th Congress, a trend we are already seeing continue into the first session of the current Congress. Last month the Senate held an oversight hearing on the need for so-called “modernization” of the ESA. Historically, calls for “modernization” have been little more than veiled attempts to weaken and undermine statutes. Just this week Defenders testified before the House Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on the implementation of section 7 of the ESA, which had been attacked as ineffective. Defenders staff testified to the strength of the act and its effectiveness at meeting its mission. They argued that the only shortcoming of the ESA is the fact that it is hamstringed in its efforts by a lack of funding and the best way to improve its function would be for lawmakers to commit to fully funding it. The ESA is America’s premier law for protecting and preserving endangered and threatened species and we must defend it for wildlife everywhere.
Defenders is working tirelessly to combat these incessant attacks against the ESA and our nation’s at-risk wildlife and you can, too. Sign up for our emails to receive the latest news and action alerts in the fight to protect endangered species. In the meantime, we will keep up the fight to protect these endangered wolves as they continue to recover and rediscover the historical landscape they once called home.