Wolves’ arrival spurs calls for management


Issue Date: August 26, 2015
By Ching Lee
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife released this photo of what it has dubbed the “Shasta Pack,” a couple of gray-wolf adults and five pups in Siskiyou County. Trail cameras in May and July also recorded near this location a lone canid believed to be part of this pack.
Photo/California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Photographic evidence of a pack of gray wolves in Northern California has ranchers concerned that the predators are becoming established in California, and that the state lacks a plan to allow ranchers to protect their livestock against wolf predation.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife released multiple photos last week showing what it has named the "Shasta Pack": a group of two gray-wolf adults and five pups in Siskiyou County. It is the first confirmed sighting of gray wolves in the state since a lone wolf, OR7, entered California in late 2011; that wolf has not been in the state for more than a year. It is also the state's first wolf pack since the species' extirpation more than 90 years ago.

Announcement of the wolf discovery comes more than a year after the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list the gray wolf under the state Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, kill or attempt any of those actions in California. The gray wolf is also protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Ranchers said they were disappointed in the state ESA listing and remain concerned about the impact wolves would have on their livestock should they become established in the state.

The wolves' arrival has led DFW to delay release of a draft management plan that ranchers hope would outline tools they could use to protect their livestock. The department said the plan—which has been in development for more than three years and involved input from a wide range of stakeholders—will need to be revised to include reference to wolf presence in California.

"This happened a little earlier than the department expected and I think a lot earlier than some of us stakeholders expected," said Kirk Wilbur, director of government relations for the California Cattlemen's Association, referring to appearance of the pack.

DFW said it hopes to release the draft plan for public comment by the end of the year, and a final plan next spring.

Siskiyou County rancher Jeff Fowle called delay of the wolf plan "unacceptable," saying ranchers need to know what's in it "to see if it's something we can live with."

"It's got to be a plan that actually manages (wolves) and doesn't just look the other way," he said. "Pardon the pun, but it needs to have some teeth in it."

Ranchers say the state ESA leaves them few options on how to protect their livestock. Some interpretations of the law, Fowle said, also make unclear the legality of certain methods once thought to be acceptable.

Wilbur said rancher representatives who participated in development of the draft would like to see a plan that gives some "meaningful notification" for when wolves are in an area, so ranchers can take precautions to protect their livestock.

Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said she wants the department to make it a priority to radio-collar at least one member of the pack, "to ensure that ranchers in the vicinity are made aware of the pack's presence to do what they can to protect their animals."

OR7 was collared with a radio and satellite transmitter by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2011, providing daily information about the animal's location for several years.

Karen Kovacs, wildlife program manager for the state DFW, said collaring is included in the department's draft plan to monitor wolf packs in California, but it is still discussing plans to do this with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Sounds simple to do, but much more complex to successfully complete," Kovacs said.

The department notified ranchers and other landowners within a 10-mile radius of the wolves' rendezvous point, letting them know the wolves are nearby, Wilbur said.

"We appreciate that outreach, because it gives ranchers the opportunity to be more vigilant in protecting their livestock," he said.

With the endangered species protections of the wolf, Wilbur said ranchers are left with using nonlethal and noninjurious methods to deter wolves, such as installing bright, flashing lights and flags on fence lines.

But he said these methods can be "extremely expensive," especially for those with a large ranch property. Studies have also shown that these methods "are never effective 100 percent of the time," he added, noting that wolves eventually become habituated to the deterrents and start ignoring them.

"Even if you institute nonlethal, noninjurious methods, you're often going to have to employ more than one and you're going to have to switch it up as time moves on," he said. "That just compounds the economic problem."

Fowle said he believes some nonlethal methods "might work" for the short term, but they don't remove the threat, which causes stress on the herd, reducing cattle weight.

He currently uses Pyrenees and Anatolian guard dogs to protect his herds from coyotes, mountain lions and bears, but he said wolves travel in packs, and guard dogs are not always effective in warding them off.

"Once you have (a wolf) that acquires a taste for livestock, the one solution is you get rid of them permanently," he said.

Depending on what's in the final wolf management plan and the extent of wolf-livestock conflicts in the state, Wilbur said it's possible that livestock groups could seek "carve-outs" in the state ESA for wolves, such as if there's a problem predator that has repeatedly taken livestock.

"Maybe we (would be) permitted to do something that's not otherwise allowed under the ESA," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.