Making Room for Wolves

The wolf that passed through Northern California last year, revealed that, if left to a natural progression,  California will be a home for wolves at some time in the future. Without protection, wolves could be kept in check at the border, but a majority of the California public wants wolves -not to mention that they are federally protected as an endangered species.

Therefore, the question is not if, but when. A flurry of wolf-related human activity is taking place. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has asked the California Fish and Game Commission to list the gray wolf as endangered. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has made it clear that they do not believe the gray wolf is endangered per the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

In anticipation move, CDFW, has begun to work on a management plan for wolves and has made a commitment to finishing the plan by the end of 2014. Wolves are leaving a wide political wake as they work their way from Yellowstone towards the Shasta Cascade.

It is now a foregone conclusion that wolves will once again live in California. Almost all of California has been home to wolves at some time in the past. However, things are much different today from the time when grizzlies roamed the central valley and wolves hunted for Columbia black-tailed deer in the Bay Area.

Tule elk were once on the verge of extinction, but hunters brought them back.

Tule elk were once on the verge of extinction, but hunters brought them back.

The perfect wolf food is elk meat. It’s obvious that one mature elk provides enough food to feed a pack of wolves for a few days. A moose is even better, but California (to my knowledge) has never been a home for moose. Deer on the other hand have always had wide distribution throughout California and to a limited degree are still here and available to feed wolves today.

According to CBD’s petition, wolves were most abundant prior to European occupation of California. Think about the food base for wolves at that time. There were deer virtually everywhere. Herds of tule elk lived in the Central Valley and Coast ranges. There was no human interference, except for the primitive California tribes.

In 1800, California habitat was primarily inhabited by wildlife. Today California habitat is primarily inhabited by people and people are very demanding.

What will the wolves eat? In the northern counties where elk have made a comeback, they will eat mostly elk, because that is what wolves were designed to do.

To occupy any territory in sustainable numbers, wolves must form packs so they can breed and form a sustaining social network. A pack may be five wolves that are the offspring of the breeding pair. While a lone wolf may be able to live off ground squirrels, mice, road kill and an occasional coyote, a pack requires the calories provided by ungulates. Young wolves that are unable to hunt for themselves will not survive without the meat of large ungulates like elk.

Wolves will prey upon Columbia black-tailed deer and mule deer, but the hunters in the pack will be required to work very hard to kill enough deer to feed a growing family. And, currently California deer densities are low, requiring a pack to hunt over a large area. Therefore the potential density of healthy wolves inhabiting California is very low.

If wolves are going to make it in California, without eating beef or mutton, compensation must come from somewhere. That’s why wool growers and cattlemen are concerned.

Either predation from coyotes, bear and mountain lions will have to decline, or sportsmen will have to reduce their take. In a perfect world, the promoters of wolves would lobby for additional wolf habitat and help supply funding. Those who look forward to having wolves in California must be prepared to share the costs, but will they?

While sportsmen would probably just as soon let the wolves stay in Oregon, they also appreciate wild animals and have a connection with large predators. Hunters can live with wolves as long as there is enough habitat and management to keep them in balance within a shared ecosystem.

What sportsmen cannot tolerate is adding a new face at the table without a budget that tells them where the extra food is coming from. In other words we need changes to create habitat for wolves which means more elk and deer. Without adequate shared habitat and proper management tools, wolves will create chaos. Once wolves reach a sustainable population, it will be necessary to manage them with lethal means. This means either population reduction by paid depredation or public hunting. California are your ready?

Where can new habitat come from?  More government funding for land management agencies so additional habitat can be created on our vast public lands. That means tax payers will have to respond. We need changes to air quality control regulation so that habitat-enhancing controlled burning can take place to create more ungulate food for deer that wolves eat. We need better management of natural burn areas to allow brush to grow instead of poisoning deer food with herbicides.

If the people of California are willing to take on the financial responsibility for feeding a new member of the wildlife family, then bring on the wolves. But like a young couple wanting children, Californians must take this wildlife management responsibility seriously.

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