Last month, the first wild wolf recorded in California in ninety years made a quick return to the Golden State. The wolf’s story was the subject of a feature by Joe Donnelly in the September/October 2013 issue of Orion.
The lone gray wolf known to scientists as OR7—and to anthropomorphically inclined fans as Journey—has sealed his reputation for the dramatic, or at least the symbolic, by crossing back to California for a couple of visits in December.
The large male wolf made a return appearance to the happy hunting ground where he spent all of 2012 and the first few months of 2013. And he arrived just in time to shine a spotlight on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s long-simmering petition to protect gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act.
Some brief backstory: When intrepid OR7 first made it to California, right around this time in 2011, he didn’t just add a milestone to his remarkable trek south from remote Wallowa County in northeast Oregon—he also enlisted California in the cultural and political civil war that’s been chasing wolves across the West ever since their successful mid-1990s reintroduction into the Northern Rockies. That OR7 happened to spend a significant amount of time sniffing around Lassen County, where the last indigenous Californian gray wolf was killed for a bounty in 1924, added a touch of poetry to his journey.
Not everyone saw it that way, though. Just as it had in Washington and Oregon, the gray wolf’s reclamation of historic habitat was met with howls of doom and destruction from certain quarters—particularly the ranching and hunting lobbies.
Conversely, environmentalists hailed this pilgrim’s progress as a historic event and a harbinger of things to come—namely, more wolves. The Center For Biological Diversity and other environmental groups jumped on OR7’s sojourn in the Golden State to petition California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to grant endangered-species protections to gray wolves—protections that were already being rescinded by the feds.
Coinciding with OR7’s December dashes across the California border, the Center for Biological Diversity had obtained the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s draft status-review of that proposal to protect gray wolves in California its petition had initiated. The draft finds the department wavering on the issue—one reason being that when OR7 left California this past spring after fifteen months knocking around the northern counties, he took the state’s only wolf with him.
His recent returns—and there will be more; this wolf appears to be establishing the largest single-wolf territory on earth—are a timely reminder that large swaths of California are prime wolf habitat: as many as 50,000 square miles, according to some studies. And while OR7 may be the first wild wolf in nearly ninety years to suss out California’s potential, he won’t be the last.
That is, so long as wolves aren’t eradicated from the West all over again. Only two decades removed from their reintroduction, and just starting to solidify their comeback, wolves are once again the targets of hunting and ranching interests. The anti-wolf offensive started when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began lifting Endangered Species Act protections for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves a couple years ago, returning management to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Those states have done a poor job. Almost immediately, they resumed wolf hunting and trapping and managed to kill off about half the gray wolf population in the West. It’s like the turn of the century all over again when wolves, bears, and anything else that competed with man for domain over the land got crushed by the wheels of Manifest Destiny.
In a ghoulish illustration of the prevailing mindset, the “First Annual Coyote and Wolf Derby” was held late last month in Salmon, Idaho. Sponsored by a group called Idaho For Wildlife—a pro-gun, pro-hunting nonprofit—the Derby will award cash and trophies to teams that bag the biggest wolf or kill the most female coyotes. Family-friendly, the Derby allows kids as young as ten to participate.
Hunters and ranchers justify these killing sprees as a means of keeping wolves from decimating their elk and cattle herds. But the impact of wolves on livestock is statistically meaningless, and even more so in light of massive federal ranching subsidies and state-funded reimbursements provided when wolves do kill livestock (which they do way, way less often than domestic dogs).
As for the elk and other wildlife, studies throughout the west have shown that where there are healthy wolf populations, the entire ecosystem—including elk herds—does better. Wolves are better wildlife managers than we are.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is apparently willing to remove all wolf protections everywhere. So, if we want to see these amazing creatures reclaim their rightful place as lords of the wilderness, it’s even more incumbent upon enlightened state agencies, such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (which had been protecting non-existent wolverines for decades, just in case one showed up—and two years ago, one did!), to protect wolves as endangered species.
California’s final determination is due in February. OR7 continues to vote with his feet every time he returns. Let’s hope we can follow his lead.
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning writer and editor from Los Angeles. He recently launched Mission and State, a nonprofit experiment in digital news and narrative.