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CA: Trust between state, ranchers elusive as wolves populate N. California

Ranchers peppered state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials with questions during a workshop on wolf-livestock conflicts, as landowners contend wildlife managers are often too slow to notify them of danger from nearby wolves.

Tim Hearden
Capital Press

HAT CREEK, Calif. — More than five years after a gray wolf first set foot in California, trust between state wildlife managers and ranchers remains elusive.

That much was certain at a workshop on wolf-livestock conflicts June 14, as state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials were grilled by cattle producers who perceive the agency as slow to notify landowners of nearby wolf sightings.

“We are right now concerned about, one, minimizing livestock losses and two, protecting wolves,” DFW wildlife program manager Karen Kovacs told about 60 area ranchers in the fire hall at Hat Creek, about 70 miles northeast of Redding.

If the state issues information about pups, for instance, some wolf enthusiasts and videographers might flock to the area to get pictures, while others might want to harm them, Kovacs said.

“They’re in the middle,” she said of wildlife managers. “We try to contact people when we’ve got multiple tracks.”

When Kovacs later urged the ranchers to “trust us,” several blurted out, “Well, you don’t trust us.”

“You can’t believe a word the California Department of Fish and (Wildlife) says,” Lassen County rancher Joe Egen said in an interview. “They are intentionally vague with all of this. There’s a pair right now on one of our allotments. We’ve seen the tracks.

“We didn’t decide until three days ago whether we were going to turn out or not,” he said, adding that he will run his cattle on his summer allotment but with a large human presence.

The exchanges highlight what has been a rocky relationship between state regulators and rural Northern Californians since the December 2011 arrival of OR-7, the first known gray wolf in the state in 87 years.

Since then, the state Fish and Game Commission has listed wolves as endangered, meaning the animal can’t be killed or hunted even in cases of livestock depredation. The state in December finalized its wolf management plan to guide conservation and management efforts as a wolf population takes hold.

The California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation filed suit against the state earlier this year to challenge the listing. Meanwhile, OR-7 has returned to Oregon, but another pack — the Shasta Pack — has become established in Northern California.

Wolf advocates and state officials have been promoting nonlethal means of warding off wolves, including using guard dogs, motion-sensor lights, brightly colored flags or range riders. But cattle and sheep producers say state officials are frequently vague about where they believe wolves to be.

Rancher and Shasta County Supervisor Mary Rickert said state officials should collar wolves so that landowners can know when their animals may be in danger from nearby predators.

“As long as the government can be diligent about notifying us, then it will work,” she said in an interview.

The use of collars were one idea that enjoyed nearly unanimous agreement in a stakeholders’ group that helped put the state’s wolf management plan together, said Pamela Flick, the California representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

But wolves are hard to locate at a given moment unless there have been sightings, said Larry Forero, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock adviser.

“We just spent the last week trying to find these animals in Lassen County,” Kovacs said. “It’s in our plan.”