LOOKOUT, MODOC COUNTY
At least seven California game wardens wearing bulletproof vests and sidearms drove into Big Valley, past alfalfa fields and cattle pastures. Their pickups crunched along a dirt road before turning onto a ranch.
Carrying a warrant, the wardens searched three homes at the property.
Before they left that day in August 2019, the wardens interrogated a young man, a sixth-generation rancher with close ties to other farming families in this part of Lassen and Modoc counties.
The wardens asked him if he’d shot and killed a wolf. In the days before the wolf died in December 2018, it had been spotted feeding on a calf that had died in a rancher’s pasture.
The wardens thought they had their suspect.
Nine months earlier, 23-year-old Brett Gagnon’s mobile phone had sent signals to local cell towers, putting him near the location where the wolf, which carried a GPS collar, had been shot and killed in a forested meadow 150 yards off a desolate country road. The pings indicated that Gagnon had been nearby within minutes of the wolf’s collar sending out “a mortality signal” to the biologists tracking its movements.
During the raid, the wardens seized just one gun, a .223 rifle, with a caliber that was the same as the bullet found in the wolf’s carcass. They took two unfired .223 rounds, Gagnon’s phone and his computer.
Gagnon was possibly facing jail time and tens of thousands of dollars in fines for killing a wolf protected under state and federal endangered species laws.
But the investigation began to unravel.
During an interrogation, Gagnon insisted he didn’t kill the wolf, though his family — like so many in this part of the state — has no love for the predators that began to move back into far Northern California nine years ago.
The wardens found no evidence in Gagnon’s text messages or his photographs that he’d shot the wolf. And when the ballistics on the bullet came back, the round in the wolf’s carcass wasn’t fired from the gun that the wardens took.
A year and a half later, the case remains under investigation, and Gagnon remains a free man. Despite rewards of $7,500, the wolf’s shooter remains at large.
The wardens’ show of force ratcheted up tensions between local ranchers and California’s wildlife agency. To the ranchers, the raid was a sign that the state was willing to go to any length to send a message that wolves are more important than the local families trying to make a living on the soil that sticks in their boot cleats.
“They desperately want to make an example out of someone, in my opinion,” said local rancher Aaron Albaugh, a Lassen County supervisor who is friends with Gagnon’s family.
The game wardens, however, say they were following where the evidence took them, as they sought to enforce wildlife-protection laws that are widely popular in California.
“No matter if it’s a dead wolf or a dead deer, we take protecting California’s wildlife very seriously,” said Chief David Bess, California’s top officer at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The raid is spelled out in search warrants unsealed at The Sacramento Bee’s request and never reported in the media until now. It symbolizes a wider conflict that has been playing out in the West since white settlers arrived in the mid-19th century and began 150 years of shooting, poisoning and trapping wildlife, and plowing over wetlands to grow crops with water dammed up from once-wild rivers.
Now, with climate change ravaging the West and many species teetering near extinction, California must answer an important question: How do we save what’s left of our corner of a vast Western high-desert landscape while allowing ranchers and farmers to continue making a living in these impoverished communities?
Decades of bureaucratic paternalism and thousands of lawsuits have ground progress to a halt just when the Golden State is suffering from an ongoing environmental disaster.
Few species embody those tensions like California’s newly arriving wolves, as I learned over the year and a half I spent interviewing close to two dozen ranchers, scientists, government officials and environmentalists.
And few evoke so much misinformation.
WOLVES ‘BRING OUT A MIRROR OF OUR EMOTIONS’
Advocates often describe wolves as an ecological miracle, bringing balance by picking off sickly deer and elk that are overgrazing landscapes, allowing all the species in the food web to thrive.
A video on YouTube “How wolves change rivers” has been viewed 42 million times. It describes how wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and how they brought the ecosystem back to life by feeding on elk overgrazing on riverside plants.
There’s just one problem with the video’s premise.
“It’s scientifically irrefutable that adding wolves alone does not allow the rapid restoration of riparian plant communities, as is claimed in that video,” said N. Thompson Hobbs, a Colorado State University professor who spent nearly two decades monitoring Yellowstone’s streamside habitats in a carefully controlled study.
On the other side, ranchers and hunters often argue wolves’ numbers will grow so large that they’ll ravish the deer and elk population, or they will feed on livestock almost exclusively and devastate local farm economies. They spread myths that California’s wolves were trucked into the state (they weren’t) and that they aren’t a native species (they are).
“Everywhere wolves will go and everywhere wolves have been, they bring out a mirror of our emotions and our worries and our concerns and our values,” said Arthur Middleton, a UC Berkeley assistant professor who’s studied wolves in places like Yellowstone. “What’s vexing about this is that much of what anybody has to say about wolves is partly true and partly false.”
Scientists have tracked wolf packs that cause major losses to livestock producers. There are other examples of where the ranchers and wolves seem to get along fine. The same goes for wolves’ relationships with local prey species.
Wolves occasionally come across elk herds struggling in deep snow, and the wolves ravage them. But there are other places where wolves and their prey coexist in ecological harmony.
California wildlife officials declared wolves an endangered species in California in 2014, despite none known to be in the state at the time. The move came after the Bush and Obama administrations had sought to “delist” several populations from the federal Endangered Species Act. This fall, the Trump administration finalized a decision to remove almost all U.S. wolves, including California’s, from the federal protections.
Though environmentalists fiercely support protecting wolves, California’s “endangered” status may not have been necessary, given the wolves coming into the state are from stable or growing populations elsewhere, said L. David Mech, a wolf scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Sure, from a state standpoint, there aren’t very many,” Mech said of California. “But when you consider that they really should be looked at as part of the Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming population. Well, then they’re not (endangered). Just depends on the perspective, you know?”
In the years since OR7 in 2011 became the first known wolf to venture into California in nearly a century, about 40 wolves have passed through, settled or been born in the remote, five-county region about the size of West Virginia in California’s northeastern corner.
Experts say that, so far, it looks like this dry habitat — and small local populations of gray wolves’ favorite prey, deer and elk — don’t lend themselves to large wolf packs. Wolves have evolved to self-regulate their pack sizes based on the available food, scientists say. Elk numbers remain small and local deer herds have declined substantially over the decades.
Carter Niemeyer, who retired in 2006 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Idaho’s wolf recovery coordinator, said he could understand why OR7 decided to head back to Oregon after traipsing around northeastern California for months.
“He came through that Oregon riparian zone and got a dose of that area of California and turned around and went back,” Niemeyer said.
So far, the state’s only known wolf pack, the Lassen Pack in Plumas and Lassen counties, has a home range almost twice that of a typical pack of its size, likely because it’s ranging farther to find food, said Kent Laudon, California’s wolf biologist.
The Lassen Pack also has stayed relatively small since the family settled down in 2017. The pack has a core group of around three adults — though this year Laudon believes at least three yearlings and nine pups were in the pack at one point.
How many of them will survive or stick around is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, the Lassen Pack has occasionally developed a taste for local beef. Laudon’s investigations have determined the pack attacked cattle at least seven times this year alone.
Since 2015, state investigators have listed around two dozen dead cattle being “probable” or “confirmed” wolf kills. Other reported “attacks” were inconclusive or turned out to be wolves feeding on cattle that had died from other causes.
At the same time, state investigators take any suspicious wolf death seriously. Another wolf from an Oregon pack had traveled more than 8,700 miles as she looked for a mate for months across California as far south as Interstate 80 and Lake Tahoe, with forays into Nevada and back into Oregon.
The wolf, known as OR54, was found dead earlier this year in Shasta County. Officials haven’t released the cause of death, citing an ongoing investigation. But they warn that game wardens take “very seriously any threats to this recovering wolf population.”
THE SAGA OF A WOLF KNOWN AS OR59
After making a nearly 500-mile journey from his home pack in northeastern Oregon, the wolf known as OR59 entered California in early December 2018, traveling through evergreen trees and sagebrush, along dirt roads and hillsides gnarled with lava rock, slick with snow and morning frost.
He’d been tagged and bureaucratically named OR59 for the 59th time that Oregon biologists had put a collar on a new wolf. He’d covered a remarkable amount of territory. His collar showed that for most of the days he was in California he wandered at least 28 miles a day — one day ranging 56 miles.
On Dec. 5, 2018, OR59’s powerful nose got a whiff of fresh beef — a calf.
As the wolf tore mouthfuls of flesh from the calf’s carcass, a rancher spotted it from his truck. Thanks to its black fur, OR59 was easily distinguished from the gray coyotes that live in the region. It also wore the green GPS collar Oregon biologists had placed around its neck nine months earlier when he was a yearling.
The rancher called Laudon, the state’s wolf biologist, who advised the rancher to shoo the wolf away before he ate too much of the evidence that would show whether he had actually killed the calf.
Laudon called the local specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. The pair arrived a couple of hours later. The rancher and his son showed them the carcass, which was still warm.
On a hillside, some 250 yards away, OR59 watched them as the men began dissecting his would-be breakfast.
The investigators found no signs of a struggle or pre-death wounds that would point to a wolf attack. Instead, the three and a half-month-old calf had fluid in its lungs. It had likely succumbed to pneumonia.
OR59 had merely been opportunistic.
“Wolves run through livestock all the time and nothing happens,” Laudon said months later, as he sat in his camp trailer in the opposite corner of Lassen County, after a morning trying to capture and place a GPS collar on a member of the Lassen Pack.
“But there is that one day when something does happen, and it becomes a headline.”
‘THEY’RE AUTOMATICALLY GOING TO BLAME A RANCHER’
At 1:38 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, the GPS-tracking device on OR59’s collar sent an alert to biologists that the wolf had died in a forest meadow 150 yards from a country road just north of the small Modoc County community of Lookout.
The next morning, Aaron Freitas, the local state game warden assigned to the area, headed to the GPS coordinates.
It didn’t take him long to find evidence the wolf had been shot near a dead cow that had been hit by a vehicle. A CHP officer had shot the injured cow, putting it out of its misery.
Freitas found the dead wolf covered in a light skiff of snow. Its spine was broken from a bullet wound.
Just a mile or two up the road, cell phone service fades along County Road 91, but Freitas could still get a signal.
In the months that followed, the wardens began serving search warrants with telecommunications companies in the hopes the shooter had a phone on and the cell towers in the area could point them to a suspect.
They believed they had a match.
On the same day that the wolf was killed, Gagnon, the young rancher from the Big Valley area, had a cell phone on, and it pinged the tower seven times in less than 25 minutes within a couple of miles of the kill site, according to the search warrants.
Wardens ruled out other phones that pinged the towers, and they wrote in their affidavits that while Gagnon did travel past the site from time to time, this particular trip didn’t appear to be “merely a coincidence.”
Kathy DeForest, a Big Valley rancher who’s friends with the Gagnon family, feared she knew who the wardens would be targeting as soon as she got word that someone had shot a wolf.
“‘Here they go,’ ” she remembers thinking. “ ‘They’re automatically going to blame a rancher.’ ”
A COYOTE-KILLING CONTEST DRAWS RAGE
Gagnon’s family, which owns the only general store in the Modoc County community of Adin, had for years helped organize local “Coyote Drives,” before the state Fish and Game Commission banned the practice in 2014 after animal rights activists began complaining it was a “coyote-killing contest.”
Over a weekend each February, the goal for the 200 hunters who showed up in Adin was to kill as many coyotes as possible. Prizes were awarded to teams that brought back the most kills. Coyote hunting is legal in California. There is no daily bag limit and no set hunting seasons. Hunters can shoot them year-round.
California’s Republican State Sen. Brian Dahle, who has a farm in nearby Bieber, participated in the derby in the past.
While Dahle believes livestock losses to coyotes would be “two or three times greater” without culling, animal welfare activists, who oppose predator hunting in principle, point to other research showing that killing coyotes doesn’t necessarily have the desired effect that ranchers seek.
Coyotes tend to have larger litters when their competitors for limited food — other coyotes — are removed from the landscape. Out-of-area coyotes also quickly move in to claim the vacant territory.
About seven years ago, animal rights activists got wind of the derby, thanks to two allies on the ground in Big Valley: Paula Pataye-Hopping and her husband, Roger. The couple was appalled at hunters showing off carcasses in downtown Adin.
Roger Hopping began alerting statewide animal rights groups to the contests. Based on Hopping’s accounts, animal rights groups started online petitions to end them. Tens of thousands of people eventually signed them.
In 2014, Roger Hopping got into a confrontation with Brett Gagnon’s father, Steve. Gagnon allegedly pushed Hopping. The fall broke a vertebra in the then-73-year-old Hopping’s back, Pataye-Hopping said.
Deputies cited Gagnon, but Jordan Funk, Modoc County’s district attorney at the time, dropped the charges. Citing lack of proof, court documents say the charges were dismissed in “the interest of justice.” But Pataye-Hopping thinks there was another reason.
“He wouldn’t have been able to win a case with a jury in this county,” she said.
“He really suffered, emotionally and psychologically, not realizing how much people would come down on him,” she said.
The game wardens in their search warrants mention Steve Gagnon’s scuffle with Hopping, and they noted the Adin community still holds coyote derbies each February, though they’re now called “Sportsman’s Summits.” They get around the ban on killing contests by not offering prizes.
‘WE’RE JUST TRYING TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED’
The Gagnon family couldn’t believe how many wardens climbed out of their pickups last year at the family’s ranch near Adin.
“I can’t believe you guys would waste your time to investigate somebody for shooting a miserable wolf,” a man who wardens identified as Brett Gagnon’s grandfather told the officers, according to their search warrants.
Steve Gagnon, Brett’s father, didn’t show a lot of sympathy for the animal either, according to the wardens’ search warrants. “The story I heard was that the wolf was right there feeding on the cow and someone must have just pulled right up, shot it and then left,” he told the officers. “And we heard, all of us heard, there was no tracks, the guy never got out, and he just kept going up the road. And I said, ‘How perfect is that?’ ”
“I’m not playing my cards like I would do it, but that was a perfect situation if a guy had a chance to kill a wolf. But — and I’m not condoning that at all — believe me. I know that sounds bad coming out of my mouth, but it is what it is.”
The confession they were hoping to get from Brett Gagnon that day didn’t happen “because he didn’t do it,” his mother, Julie Gagnon, said in an interview.
“He’s such an honest kid,” she said. “If he had done it, they’d have cracked him like an acorn. It would have been all over his face.”
To her, the show of force, as well as the search into her son’s phone records and photographs — all over cell phone pings — amounted to Big Government overreach at its worst.
“If you drive by a crime scene and they ping your phone does that automatically make you a suspect?” she said.
Bess, the warden’s chief, said the number of wardens sent to conduct the search was routine for the purposes of officer safety and to gather evidence.
And it wasn’t as if the raid was conducted without local judicial oversight.
Two judges in conservative Modoc County agreed that the wardens had probable cause to conduct their searches after reviewing the evidence the officers described in their affidavits.
Bess said he understands the ranchers’ concerns about wolves impacting their livelihoods better than most. His family has a cattle ranch in Amador County.
But the law is the law.
“You can’t kill wolves,” Bess said. “We’re just trying to find out what happened.”
As the clock ticks away on the five-year statute of limitations on the federal case, it seems unlikely anyone is going to claim the $7,500 reward. OR59’s killer will likely never end up inside a courtroom.
Mike Poindexter, a retired Modoc County sheriff, summed up why in an interview last year.
“I don’t know you’d find a whole lot of people up here upset at someone shooting a wolf,” he said, “especially after it’s been seen feeding on a calf.”
WOLVES DIE UNDER MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES
Log on to any ranching or hunting group’s Facebook page when the topic of California wolves comes up, and inevitably you’ll see it: “SSS,” an acronym for “Shoot. Shovel. Shut up.”
For these keyboard commandos, the best way to deal with a troublesome wolf and avoid attracting the attention of game wardens is to discreetly kill it.
And it happens. In Oregon and Washington, there are at least 31 cases in which wolves died under suspicious circumstances since 2015, but no charges were filed, said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Dusty de Braga, who manages several hundred cattle inside the Lassen Pack’s territory, has heard that kind of “SSS” talk before.
But de Braga said it’s bluster — at least among the ranchers like him whose cattle graze in the public and private forests where the Lassen Pack spends its summers, outside of Westwood near Lake Almanor in southern Lassen County.
“We see ’em. We could shoot ’em if we wanted to. I got a rifle in here,” de Braga told me in September 2019, as he tipped his head toward the backseat of his pickup truck. We were parked in a meadow where the Lassen Pack had been spotted chasing cattle through the grass several months earlier.
Just about every rancher who raises cattle inside the Lassen Pack’s territory has seen the wolves as the wolves have traipsed along the dirt roads around town at one time or another, de Braga said.
One day, one of de Braga’s cowboys was outside his home on the outskirts of Westwood with his granddaughter when she said, “ ‘Whose dogs are those?’ ” de Braga said. “Five of them came right by the house, just walking right by.”
de Braga said his son-in-law once had a stare-down with one of the members of the pack before it wandered off.
The site where the pack raises its pups is hardly a secret either. All of the ranchers in town know where it is, a plot of private timber and ranchland not far from Westwood, de Braga said. Ranchers and truck drivers sometimes see wolf pups from the road playing in a meadow.
To de Braga, it just shows that ranchers are trying as best they can to live with wolves even though they may not like having them around.
“We’re not the bad guys here,” de Braga said.
Environmentalists are quick to note that wolf attacks represent a fraction of the huge numbers of cattle living in these areas. There are nearly 100,000 cattle estimated to be on the private and public rangelands in Plumas, Lassen and Modoc counties.
But for ranchers whose cattle are in a wolf pack’s territory, having wolves around adds a lot more work and can lead to substantial losses.
Wally Roney has lost two cattle in confirmed attacks to the Lassen Pack on the land his family has been working for more than a century. But he said he’s also likely lost several more to the pack based on the numbers of calves that he was unable to find.
He estimates that he lost tens of thousands of dollars in one recent summer from the extra labor of corralling his cattle on his private ground, the extra feed they ate in the corral and the body weight they lost from being stressed with wolves around.
“I went up in the mountains with more than I came out with pound-wise,” he said, referring to the weight of his animals. “I’m not raising cattle to feed the wolves. I’m very seriously considering liquidating most of my cattle. … They’re basically putting me out of business.”
Like most of the cattlemen and women in this part of the state, de Braga also leaves his cattle on the range for weeks at a time, going out on horseback during roundups in the fall. He and his colleagues have lost around 10 cattle in state-confirmed wolf kills.
The suggestions that environmentalists have for ranchers to keep their cattle safe from wolves — using range riders to monitor herds, corralling them at night when the wolves are most active, setting out lights and motion alarms — aren’t practical out here on these vast forested landscapes, he said.
His cattle roam over a territory that stretches nearly 50 miles, he said.
“It’s absolutely pointless and impossible,” de Braga said.
A CONFRONTATION OVER A DEAD CALF
One summer day in 2018, Gabe Williams was itchin’ for a fight.
The Lassen Pack had just killed one of Williams’ calves — the first time a wolf had attacked his cattle in a quarter-century of ranching. Because of the legal protections, there wasn’t anything the cowboy could do about it.
But then, standing near the carcass, someone came walking up. Laudon, the state’s wolf biologist, was there to investigate the attack.
And, boy, did Williams let him have it. At one point, Williams got so angry, he said he nearly socked the biologist on his scruffy jaw.
“He’s the face of the wolves for us,” Williams said. “And we’re standing there looking over the carcasses of these calves, these cattle that we raise, the ones that’s been ripped up — and he’s the guy we’re interfacing with. He represents the wolves.”
But in the months since, Williams said he’s come to realize that no matter how much he despises California’s wolf policies, Laudon isn’t the enemy.
If anything, Laudon has gone “above and beyond” to give the ranchers like himself a heads up when the wolves wearing GPS collars are about to enter their grazing areas so they can take steps to protect their herds from attacks, he said.
“He’s got a job to do,” Williams said. “He’s the state biologist for the wolves. He’s not out there directing wolves to damage livestock or kill livestock. … He’s been good to work with since that first contentious day I met him on the forest.”
For Laudon, who’s been doing wolf biology for more than two decades — the last three and a half years in California — that’s how it always goes when wolves move back into cattle country.
“Twenty-years, I’ve done that over and over and over again,” Laudon said. “When you get to the other side of that, you form friendships.”
He’s 56, but Laudon puts off a vibe of the younger man who a reporter described in a 1999 newspaper article as “cherub-faced.”
Though his cowlicked hair now sports a salt and pepper bristle, he gives off the intense earnestness of a surfer kid discussing his favorite waves as he describes the daily walk that is his job: Balancing the often conflicting demands from the lawsuit-wary bureaucrats in Sacramento who oversee his department, California’s influential wolf advocates, and the ranchers trying to adapt to a new predator sharing the landscape with their cattle.
When it comes to ranchers, Laudon tries to imagine himself in their situation.
“One day a yo-yo like me calls you up and says, ‘Hey, you got wolves.’ Then you start to recall all those files,” he said, making a sound like someone rifling through a thick file of reports. “It’s all bad news.”
“They’re concerned,” he said. “They’re scared. They’re concerned about their livelihoods. They have no idea how bad it is.”
Laudon says his job is as much about human nature as it is about wolf biology.
It’s something he said he learned during the long, lonely road trips he’s made investigating wolf attacks on livestock, doing research and trapping wolves across the West.
“All those miles, and those wolves were teaching me about people,” Laudon said. “Deep, long-lasting conservation happens through people.”
He sees the debate about wolves as analogous to America’s deeply polarized political divide.
And he thinks it doesn’t have to be this way, if — and it’s a big “if” — the various factions in the wolf debate can set aside their mistrust and work toward helping each other.
“Can you use a critter like a wolf to bring people together?” Laudon asked as he drove along dusty logging roads in the Lassen Pack’s territory outside Westwood, checking trail cameras and looking for wolf tracks.
“I think it’s worth trying, right? It’s definitely worth trying.”