The latest gray wolf to make the long journey from Oregon to California has trekked farther south than any wolf tracked in the last century. He brings either hopes of needed genetic diversity or anxieties of predation, depending on who you ask.
The young male wolf known as OR-93, who is outfitted with a GPS collar, was most recently tracked in Mono County in the Central Sierra Nevada, hundreds of miles from his birthplace in northern Oregon, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is monitoring his movement.
“Who knows, he might be the patriarch of the first wolf pack in the Central Sierra or the Eastern Sierra. And even if he isn’t, he is blazing a trail,” said Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization.
According to Flick, who has been tracking gray wolves in the state for about a decade, OR-93 — the 93rd collared wolf from Oregon — forged a new route from his home southeast of Mt. Hood. The majority of wolves in California are from northeastern Oregon, she said.
Wolves tend to follow in the “paw steps” of others that came before them, often drawing on their sharp sense of smell, meaning he could lead others to the area, she said. It’s a thrilling prospect to her and others who support conservation.
But not everyone is thrilled by the wolves’ return. In the northern part of the state, where the wolves tend to live, there are cattle ranches, agriculture, water infrastructure or places “that aren’t totally set up for habitat,” said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For a cattle rancher, wolves mean a new predator.
“We do manage for conservation, so we do want to see them be here,” Traverso said. “But we also have to deal with the effects of them being here.”
Gray wolves are listed as endangered in California but were removed from the federal roster last month. Prior to 2011, a gray wolf had not been spotted in California since the 1920s, when they were wiped out by hunters. There are now, Traverso said, a “couple handfuls” of wolves in the state, which is their historic habitat.
Hailing from the White River pack in Oregon, OR-93 was fitted with a tracking collar last June by federal wildlife officials and a confederation of Native American tribes.
He soon left in search of new territory, a new mate or both, “like many young wolves,” California wildlife officials said in a news release.
After arriving in Modoc County in early February, he quickly continued his journey across highways and roads before arriving this week in Alpine County, according to state officials.
California officials haven’t seen OR-93 but receive occasional pings from his collar. The wolves are apex predators, like mountain lions, so “it’s kind of their job to not be seen,” Traverso said, adding that their elusiveness makes it hard to know the exact population size.
OR-93 is the 16th documented gray wolf to arrive in California, with most coming from Oregon, state wildlife officials said. One wolf, OR-54, traveled as far south as the Lake Tahoe Basin before returning north. The others have primarily traveled, and sometimes settled, in California’s northernmost counties.
The first wolf known in California since the 1920s, OR-7, arrived in late 2011. Since then, the state has seen the formation of two packs. The Shasta Pack in Siskiyou County had five pups in 2015 before disappearing late that year. The Lassen Pack, which occupies parts of Lassen and Plumas counties, has produced pups each year from 2017 to 2020.
Additionally, a new pair of wolves was recently documented in Siskiyou County; biologists with the Department of Fish and Wildlife believe it will likely produce pups this spring.
Though the increase of gray wolves in California is melodic howling to Flick’s ears, she said the animals are not out of the proverbial woods yet. That’s why she wants them back under the protection of the federal Endangered Specifies Act.
“We feel strongly that wolves have not successfully recovered in a significant majority of their unoccupied habitat,” said Flick, adding that not all states protect the animals equally. While gray wolves in California can’t be shot or harassed, it’s a different story in Colorado, where they can be hunted, she said.
And despite the promising uptick in pups, the California pack remains small. That’s another reason OR-93’s arrival is important: He or other wolves that follow him to the area can diversify the relatively homogenous pack.
Though the Department of Fish and Wildlife sees OR-93’s presence as an ecological success story, it keeps an ear open to those who have gripes, Traverso said.
“We’re not a touchy-feely department; it’s not about how do we feel,” Traverso said. “We’re just here to take in all the science, all the opinion, all the public comments, and then try to manage.”
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