In summary

Now that the federal government has abandoned protection for most wolves, the job of protecting them falls to governors, legislators and wildlife commissions.

By Amaroq Weiss, Special to CalMatters

Amaroq Weiss is a West Coast wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, aweiss@biologicaldiversity.org.

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The Trump administration recently stripped Endangered Species Act protection from the gray wolf across almost the entire country. Now the fate of this iconic animal in California is profoundly uncertain.

Wolf recovery is in its infancy here. Just 38 wolves have been confirmed in California since 2011, and at least three – including the beloved wolf OR-54, who wandered nearly 9,000 miles looking for a mate – were subsequently found dead in the state. Officials have acknowledged one as an illegal killing, and the other two are still open investigations. 

California’s first known pack, the Shasta pack, disappeared from Siskiyou County in 2015, and the cause is still under investigation. Now only one pack, the Lassen pack, makes its home here.

Though we extended protections to wolves under the state endangered species act in 2017, if they’re ever going to recover within our borders, California can’t go it alone. To ensure that wolves maintain healthy genetic diversity, federal protection is still crucial.

The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule has at least three dangerous consequences for the Golden State’s wolves. 

We’ll lose federal funds that cover the state wolf biologist’s salary and help livestock operators with nonlethal deterrent measures that prevent livestock-wolf conflicts. We’ll also lose the ability to prosecute wolf poachers if the state statute of limitations has been exceeded, as it has with one known poaching case. Finally, California’s source population of wolves could be reduced if the loss of federal protections means more wolves are killed in Oregon. 

State lines don’t mean anything to wolves, especially subadults who can roam for hundreds of miles to start new packs. A patchwork of lax or absent state protections means the penalty for a wolf’s instinctive wanderlust can be death. 

Utah employs trappers to snare any wolf unfortunate enough to wander in from elsewhere. In Wyoming it’s legal for snowmobilers to chase wolves to exhaustion, then run them over. In Idaho recent wildlife agency records show that in this current year’s trapping season, dozens of wolf puppies were killed in traps.

Since 2011 more than 6,000 wolves have been killed by hunting and trapping across the country. This figure doesn’t include additional wolves illegally killed by poachers. Nor does it include wolves killed by wildlife agencies in response to livestock losses, despite the conclusions of current science that changing livestock husbandry practices is the most effective way to prevent conflicts.

There were once nearly 2 million wolves across North America. Following the arrival of European settlers, however, it took only a few hundred years for the wolf to be almost entirely eradicated in the lower 48 states. 

By the time the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, fewer than 1,000 wolves remained.

As apex predators, wolves are essential to healthy ecosystems. They’re also highly intelligent, social animals with strong family bonds.

Over the past four decades, with the Endangered Species Act’s help, wolves have returned to some of their historic lands. But this species has yet to fully recover. Today there are about 6,000 wolves in the lower 48. That’s less than 1% of their former numbers; they occupy less than 10% of their historic range. 

Four of the five scientist peer reviewers of the federal proposal to strip wolves of protection found that the measure was not supported by science and was filled with errors and misinterpretations. Nearly 1.8 million citizen comments opposed this proposal. 

But the Trump administration listens only to those it wants to hear from and, sadly, that did not include either scientists or citizens who value nature.

Now that the federal government has abandoned protection for most wolves in the lower 48, the job of protecting them falls to state governors, legislators and state wildlife commissions. My organization will file a lawsuit to restore the wolf’s federal protections. In the meantime it’s essential that states like California protect wolves from being shot, trapped and poisoned. 

If we don’t learn from our misguided treatment of wolves in the past, their persecution will continue.

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