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Crying Wolf In California
Drought, wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, traffic: Anxiety-prone Californians have plenty to worry about. Now we can add one more entry to the list – wolves.
After a very long absence, the Wolves are back in the Golden State. Not many of them, to be sure, and not in many places, and not in places where many Californians live, but still, they are there. And if the past 20 years of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies have taught us anything, it’s that if you give a wolf a ridge, it’s sure to take an entire mountain range. Maybe an entire continent, given enough.
So should Californians be worried? I’d say yes, if the Californians in question are cows or sheep, and especially if they live anywhere other than the heavily urbanized coastal strip that runs from the San Francisco Bay Area south to Mexico. But since that strip is where most people live, and mostly human beings have little fear of wolves, I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about wolves if I lived among, say, millions of Californians in Los Angeles.
What if you’re an Angeleno who wants to be concerned about wildlife? Your time is better spent focusing on mountain lions, which are more solitary and have adapted well to living in and around urban areas. The old story about a mountain lion is that it doesn’t know it’s in the neighborhood until it’s on its back.
Even domestic dogs are a much more statistically supported threat to North American people. Healthy wolves tend to avoid humans, especially in large packs, and there were only 18 verified wolf attacks on humans in North America during the entire 20th century, resulting in two deaths (both rabies-related ). By comparison, grizzly bears killed 71 people in that period; mountain lions killed 17. And traffic accidents killed 3,000 people in California alone in 2013.
Wolves are considered one of the great wildlife restoration success stories of the modern environmental movement. When I lived in Montana in the 1970s and early 80s, the nearest resident wolves were in Canada, although the occasional tourist wolf visited the Glacier National Park area. However, in general, no permanent gray wolf packs were known in the western United States between the 1930s and the mid-1980s.
Gray wolves became a protected species in 1974 under the Endangered Species Act, and the federal government appointed a team to oversee the reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains. Development of a specific recovery plan, an environmental impact assessment, and legal evaluation of objections to the plan took until 1995. However, in the two decades since, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reported success that far exceeded expectations.
The service restored the major wolf populations: northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and the Greater Yellowstone Area. The recovery target was 10 breeding wolf pairs and a total of 100 wolves in each of these regions; by the end of 2008, all populations had exceeded the minimum targets for four consecutive years or more. Today, while gray wolves are still listed as endangered in most of the country, the Northern Rocky Mountain population (including Wyoming, eastern Washington state, eastern Oregon, and north-central Utah, except for Montana and Idaho) has been delisted. because of its wonderful recovery.
All this success came at a cost. Wolves love steak and lamb chops as much as the next guy, or maybe a little more. Farmlands on the plains and in the valleys bordering wolf habitat look a lot like a buffet. But wolves are not so concerned about the source of their meat. They are also very territorial. Dogs who encounter a wolf pack are in serious trouble, even if the dog in question is in its owner’s backyard.
Livestock depredation was a predictable and widely anticipated consequence of reestablishing wolf populations. Programs have been developed to manage losses and compensate farmers for economic damages. But still, a large number of people living near wolves today are not thrilled by the prospect. Paying cash is a small compensation when you have to tell your child that Snuffy, the beloved family pet, is not coming home tonight.
And while wolf attacks on humans in North America are extremely rare, they are not entirely unheard of. They are also slightly more likely when wolves become familiar with humans, especially due to misguided but well-intentioned humans feeding them on purpose. However, as rare as the attacks are, I wouldn’t spend any more effort worrying about them than worrying about being struck by lightning or being drafted at my age for military service. But it can happen.
Many people, myself included, are very happy that wolves are doing well in this country. Apparently they’re doing so well that they’re pushing for new territory themselves, in California and elsewhere. Some of the people who are delighted by this success live in places where they may see a wolf one day. However, most of us don’t.
California has yet to recover the wildlife diversity it once boasted. Just take a look at the state flag and look out for the grizzly bear. The so-called “California golden bear” has not been seen in California since 1924. Last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to reintroduce grizzlies to the state. However, even if the petition succeeds, any reintroduced bears must be Rocky Mountain grizzlies, another subspecies closely related to the now-extinct California variety.
I wouldn’t hold my breath for bears to come, and I wouldn’t worry too much about grizzlies even if they did. But hey – anything can happen in California.
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