The return of a gray wolf to California after nearly a century has thrust the state into an emotional and political debate as old as Little Red Riding Hood.
The lone male wolf known as OR7 has created a sensation, and everyone from schoolchildren to nursing home residents is eagerly following the animal’s progress.
But while Californians are throwing out the welcome mat, folks in other states are loading their rifles.
Last week, a photograph of an Idaho hunter proudly lifting the limp body of OR7’s brother by the bloody scruff of his radio-collared neck circulated around the Internet. The wolf, named OR9, was one of 266 wolves that were shot or trapped in Idaho this season, a toll the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has suggested might not be high enough.
Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter seemed almost giddy about the killing of OR9, which, like his brother, had left his Oregon pack. The shooting was illegal because the hunter’s wolf-hunting license had expired.
Otter sent a sarcastic letter to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, offering to provide 150 of Idaho’s wolves as compensation for the killing. The shooting and sneering photograph of the hunter’s tongue-lolling trophy prompted game wardens to issue the unlicensed hunter a warning, but no fine.
It was vintage Otter, whose invective against wolves and environmentalists has won him many votes in a state heavy with hard-line hunters and ranchers who hate the wily predators for competing with them for elk and cow meat.
“The governor (Otter) would probably make him hunter of the year if he could,” said Steve Pedery, the conservation director for Oregon Wild, which has fought vigorously on behalf of wild wolves. “The reality is that Idaho just wants to get rid of the animals again.”
Wolves wiped out
Wolves were exterminated in much of Europe and in the lower 48 states largely to protect livestock. The killing spree was spurred by myths and fairy tales about big, bad wolves huffing and puffing and trying to eat little girls.
The last known native California wolf was trapped and killed in Lassen County in 1924.
In the mid-1990s, 66 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in an attempt to bring the apex predator back. It was successful beyond anyone’s dreams.
There are now more than 1,700 gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. They have since moved into northeastern Oregon, where there are 29 wolves in four packs.
OR7, also known as Journey, left what is known as the Imnaha Pack in Wallowa County, Ore., last year and wandered as many as 1,000 miles in a zigzag path through Oregon and California, apparently looking for a mate so he could start a new pack. His GPS collar tracked him this week moving through Lassen County into southeast Shasta County, where he is now traveling south through forested, mountainous terrain.
The historic journey is being followed intently by environmentalists, who want to see wolves re-established in California, but opposition appears to be intensifying everywhere else.
Wolves can no doubt be dangerous, but attacks on humans are extremely rare. Opponents have nevertheless seized on a couple of high-profile attacks on people and domestic dogs as proof that the cunning beasts are blood-thirsty.
Ranchers, the primary detractors, point out that OR7’s former pack mates have killed 21 cows and calves over the past two years. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife killed two of the culprits and were planning to cull two other wolves, including the pack leader – OR7’s father – before conservation groups filed a lawsuit.
Hunters don’t like wolves any more than ranchers do, mainly because the animals prey on elk, a favorite hunting trophy.
The rhetoric for and against wolves has become more vehement as environmentalists continually filed lawsuits to stop efforts to relax protections. Many residents in the rural West, who are already suspicious of big government, felt federal officials were siding with tree-hugging opponents of hunting and ranching.
The folks in Idaho, where close to 800 wolves now live, were particularly infuriated by what they perceived as a complete disregard for their concerns.
Endangered no more
Last spring, the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population was removed from the endangered species list after a long delay caused by litigation. The delisting, which does not include wolves in California, gave each state more autonomy on how to manage the canine carnivores. It also opened the door for more hunting.
Not satisfied, Otter and the Idaho Legislature recently declared a wolf “disaster emergency” that would allow even more wolf killing, possibly including aerial shootings.
The hostility apparently has spread to Oregon, where Wallawa County officials recently rejected a use permit for a bed and breakfast inn by a couple who had hosted a group of wolf tourists. Ranchers said an inn that harbored wolf advocates would be incompatible with the area.
Wildlife scientists say wolves are good for the ecosystem because they control elk and deer populations and prevent overgrazing of riverside habitat, which, in turn, helps improve water quality and regenerates fish, river otter and beaver populations.
Wolves kill far fewer cows, calves and sheep than coyotes, bears and mountain lions, according to wolf advocates.
Still, everyone agrees the growing wolf population needs to be addressed.
“At some point people have to ask the rational question of whether the population should be unlimited or not,” said Mark Stopher, the senior environmental policy adviser for the director of the California Department of Fish and Game. “We’re of course a long ways from being in that situation in California, but we certainly have elements of every perspective … from those who think wolves should be shot on sight to those who think we should move everybody out of Modoc County and make it a wolf sanctuary.”
The state, he said, will probably face those hard questions in the near future, as the mysterious predator with the ghostly howl inevitably spreads across the Golden State.
— The only known video of the wolf known as OR7 can be seen at sfg.ly/yqdOBb.
— Information about gray wolves can be found at www.dfw.state.or.us/wolves.
— The meanderings of OR7 can be followed at www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/nongame/wolf.