California Game Commission to Consider Whether to Protect Gray Wolf
It is only a matter of time before wolves re-establish themselves in the Golden State
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 European settlers 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.
photo by Sakarri, on Flickr
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, the federal government recognized wolves 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.
Now, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protection for wolves throughout much 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 years — if state officials can summon the political will to do so.
Today the California Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to establish state protection for gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Such protection will be essential to wolf recovery in California, especially in the event of federal delisting.
While gray wolves certainly deserve to be listed as endangered under the CESA, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended that the Fish and Game Commission not do so. Department staff bases their decision on the claim that currently there are no wolves in California. But this is a poor reason to deny a state listing for the species.
The recommendation ignores the fact that California in fact has had a wolf in the state, one that has visited each year during the past four years – including on February 5 of this year, ironically the very day that the department recommended not to list because there are no wolves in the state! You may remember that, 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; it is very rare for a species that has disappeared entirely from a state to return under its own power. This means 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.
The recovery of gray wolves in America has 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 wolf recovery is not without its opponents. In states where wolves have had their federal protection removed, state management has reignited 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.
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. The Fish and Game Commission must take action and decide not if, but how to protect gray wolves in California.