The path for the eventual return of the gray wolf to the Golden State was paved Wednesday when the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list the predator under the California Endangered Species Act, a decision that went against the recommendation of state wildlife officials.
The 3-to-1 vote by the commission, which could have a profound effect on wildlife management in the state, came amid reports Wednesday that a remote camera in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in southwestern Oregon, has detected at least two puppies apparently fathered by the storied wolf known as OR7, the lonely lobo who recently traveled into California and has been skirting the border ever since.
Experts widely believe that the dispersing offspring of OR7 will eventually establish a pack in California and begin the repopulation of the species, which were killed off here almost 90 years ago. It is a scenario that many conservationists have been hoping for and ranchers have been dreading.
“While other states bicker and quarrel, California adds the latest chapter to one of the world’s greatest biological success stories,” said Damon Nagami, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The dispersal of wolves out of the northern Rockies will help to bring balance to other ecosystems in need of their stabilizing influence.”
The commission’s wolf decision was promptly followed by a unanimous decision not to give the great white shark similar protections in California.
The great whites were rejected on grounds that the species is already well protected and because recent anecdotal evidence from pinniped deaths and sightings indicate that shark numbers may actually be increasing. State wildlife biologists estimate that there are 3,000 great white sharks that visit coastal waters, but those numbers are hotly debated.
The decisions about the fates of two of the most feared predators on land and sea came after numerous studies and long and fractious debates over the effect the animals could have on people and the ecosystem. The majority of the dozens of speakers on the two issues were in favor of naming both wolves and the great white endangered species.
Ranchers and hunting groups in California have been adamantly opposed to protecting wolves, calling them “killing machines” that gut calves for fun and “coyotes on steroids” that will take livestock, harm ranchers and ruin the industry.
The five-member commission delayed a vote this past April so they could gather more information and public comment. Chuck Bonham, the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, recommended not listing the wolf after a yearlong review by his staff. The agency report said scientific evidence supported some protections but not a full listing.
The recommendation also said there were no wolves in California to protect, so there was no reason to list them.
The recommendation was a big blow to conservation groups, especially after a controversial decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 to delist wolves in the northern Rockies. Endangered-species protections were also removed in the western Great Lakes region. Conservation groups argued that it was disingenuous to use the successful extirpation of wolves in California as an excuse not to protect them.
The commission’s decision was in response to a petition filed by conservationists in 2012. The petition cited OR7, so named because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in Oregon. That wolf traveled thousands of miles through some of California’s most scenic wilderness, but could not find a mate. He left the state over a year ago for Oregon, where wolves are protected under state law.
Gray wolves, which once roamed across the continent, were exterminated in the lower 48 states, except Minnesota, in the 19th and early 20th centuries largely to protect livestock. The last known native California wolf was trapped and killed in Lassen County in 1924.
In 1995, 66 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in an attempt to bring the apex predator back. They have since moved into northeastern Oregon, where there are more than two dozen wolves in a handful of packs.
Wildlife advocates say the delisting in 2011 led to a killing spree in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where close to 1,000 wolves have been trapped and shot. Photos of wolf trophies and skins have become increasingly popular as conservative lawmakers have ramped up their efforts to remove remaining protections.