Redding >> Wolves are going to keep coming to California, according to a state expert.
Kent Laudon, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf specialist, has worked with wolves in several states for 20 years.
Thursday, Enterprise-Record Editor David Little hosted a live online chat related to the recent discovery of the state’s second gray wolf pack, in Lassen County.
The Lassen Pack is descended from the famous wandering wolf OR-7, who left his Oregon pack in 2011 and was spotted travelling through Butte County five years ago.
Though originally only three pups were confirmed, Laudon said there are actually six wolves in the pack — the parents and four pups.
Laudon was asked questions based on reader observations and concerns submitted through social media after the news of the second pack was announced July 5.
“The way I see it is wolves are obviously coming to the state of California,” Laudon said. “They’re going to continue to come, and our charge is how are we going to help make this work the best we can for as many folks as we can out there?”
While some people are excited at the return of the wolves in California, which had no recorded wolves for about 90 years before OR-7, others are fearful of their impact upon livestock and deer and elk populations.
Laudon said wolves don’t have a strong negative impact on livestock on a regional or even statewide scale.
“The real issues are more on an individual basis for a particular producer here and there, and at times it can be significant,” he said.
That’s when Fish and Wildlife tries to communicate and coordinate on the ground with those individuals who are raising livestock among wolves, Laudon said, to prevent conflict and depredation.
It’s a “tricky business,” and “nothing’s 100 percent.” Some wolves will rear their pups right in the middle of a grazing allotment and there are places where pack members walk through livestock every day.
Those who encounter issues with wolves harassing livestock do have legal rights to chase them off, Laudon said, whether on horseback, all-terrain vehicle or on foot. Other non-lethal measures include flagging on ropes in calving pastures, or hot wires.
When asked about wolves’ effect on deer populations, Laudon noted that mule deer populations have been declining in all western states for years, even in California before wolves arrived, so it isn’t fair to blame wolves solely for deer population declines.
Though predation rates vary throughout the year depending on the seasons and their harshness, “as a general rule” each wolf kills 20 ungulates (deer or elk) on average throughout the year.
Laudon noted there are different types of kills: those that are of animals that would have otherwise lived (additive) and those that are sick or weak and would have died anyway (compensatory).
“Wolves, and coyotes as well, are very good — that’s what they specialize in, is removing animals that are having a difficult time anyway,” he said.
When Laudon worked in Montana, there were places where the elk population declined in the presence of wolves, increased in the presence of wolves and decreased in the absence of wolves.
He used the decreased population of the Yellowstone northern range herd as an example of all the impacts affecting herd populations, including black and grizzly bears, wolves, hunting season, several years of drought and a winter with heavy snow.
“Of course, wolves got the blame for all of it,” he said.
The nature of wolves
Hollywood exaggerates things a bit, Laudon said, treating wolves as bloodthirsty apex predators that will attack humans. Some wolves are curious and may stare and hang around near people, but that isn’t typical.
“Wolves are pretty timid critters in general. Wolves fear people and try to stay away from them,” he said. “But having said that, I always think there’s a number, a portion of the population, that are kind of curious. They’re visual learners.”
Wolves mostly rely upon big game species, like deer and elk, for food.
When asked how many wolves eventually could be expected to live in California, given the habitat, Laudon said wolves are “pretty territorial,” and require about 200 square miles.
“Wolves need large landscapes,” he said.
Laudon was not sure if anyone had officially calculated which areas wolves could inhabit in the state that have enough food and space.
“If someone wanted to do some quick, dirty napkin math, you could look at areas of ungulate populations that were abundant and carve out 200-square-mile polygons on them. They’d have some kind of rough idea.”
In Montana, there was a wolf hunting season to help keep the population in check. California has determined that wolves are a protected species and hunting won’t be allowed. Laudon was asked if wolves will lose their fear of humans in this state.
“Even with hunting, I think you would still have the young animals who don’t get it,” he said. “They might see some campers or backpackers and might just check them out a little bit or stay there and stare at them.”
What is clear is that wolves do become wise to trapping, Laudon said, based on his experiences in Montana.
He reiterated that the DFW is “serious and committed” to working with folks on the ground when conflicts arise.
THE FIRST PACK
The Shasta Pack produced five pups in Siskiyou County in 2015. Laudon said the pack may no longer exist, having scattered, or may have shifted territory.
The next step is finding out where the Shasta Pack wolves may have ended up, he said. At least one was confirmed in northwestern Nevada last fall.
While Fish and Wildlife knows there are some wolves that pass through California, they can travel very far, very quickly, and are nearly impossible to keep tabs on, Laudon said.
The Lassen Pack’s female parent has been fitted with a tracking collar, which will collect data related to her activity, survival, reproduction and prey preferences, according to Fish and Wildlife. The Lassen Pack regularly crosses both public and private lands, including industrial timberlands. According to Fish and Wildlife, the collar may help minimize wolf and livestock conflicts, as it provides information about the pack’s location relative to livestock and ranch lands.
Though most of the pack’s known activity has been in western Lassen County, some tracks have also been found in Plumas County.
Six trail camera photos of the Lassen Pack can be found at flickr.com/photos/californiadfg.