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California Releases Plan for Gray Wolf Recovery

OR-25, gray wolf in Oregon's Inmaha Pack
One of California's newest wolf residents, discovered this year in Lassen County | Photo: CDFW

Five years to the month after OR-7 became the first wild wolf to enter California voluntarily since the 1920s, the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has released a long-awaited plan to guide the state's management of gray wolves. The Conservation Plan for Gray Wolves in California, published in two sections by CDFW, is intended to provide policy for wildlife managers as they handle potential conflicts between the wolves, humans, and livestock, as well as anticipating any effects the newly arrived predators may have on other species of concern. The plan also covers management of deer, elk, and other game animals to ensure that wolves have ample prey, without reducing what the Department calls "hunting opportunities for hunters." 

Wolf advocates are calling the plan, which was prompted in the first place by OR-7's visit, an improvement over its first draft. Among other things, the final Plan emphasizes the importance of non-lethal methods to keep livestock losses to wolves to a minimum.  

But according to four wildlife advocacy groups that are tracking the wolf issue, the plan falls short in a handful of key areas, including a provision that gray wolves might see their protection downgraded once there are two breeding pairs confirmed in the state for two consecutive years.

“Because California is only in the early stages of wolf recovery, we need to give these animals a chance to become established in sustainable numbers rather than prematurely rushing to end protections that are vital to their survival,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But we support the plan's initial emphasis on restoring wolves to the Golden State and reliance on nonlethal methods to reduce loss of livestock.”

In June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission listed gray wolves as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The draft plan would have allowed CDFW to consider asking the US Fish and Wildlife Service to downlist wolves to "Threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act if two breeding pairs (two adults and at least two pups) were documented in the state for two years. Such a move would clear the way for special rules allowing state wildlife agents to kill wolves in certain circumstances. With the Shasta Pack's tenure of more than a year and  the likely establishment of a second pack in Lassen County this year, such a threshold could come as early as 2018.

The draft plan also included a proposed threshold for downlisting wolves under the California ESA; when the state's wolf population reached 50-75 individuals. The final draft of the plan doesn't include a state delisting threshold. That's a bit of a reprieve for the wolves over the draft plan, but the idea of petitioning USFWS to downlist at two packs troubles conservationists greatly. 

Among other issues with the plan wildlife advocates have noted is an absence of planning extensive corridors of suitable habitat to allow wolves to reestablish a sustainable population with plenty of connectivity.

And the plan does little to address the persistent issue of wolf deaths at the hands of hunters who claim they thought they were shooting at a coyote. Such hunters are generally let off without penalty for violating the federal Endangered Species Act by killing wolves, by way of a Justice Department enforcement loophole known as the McKittrick Policy. Clarifying the state's approach to such cases of claimed mistaken identity could help dissuade hunters in wolf country from shooting at animals they can't positively identify. The state could even restrict coyote hunting in wolf areas, especially the widespread "coyote killing contests" in many parts of the state.

One other deficiency in the final plan hasn't been mentioned in environmentalist reaction to the plan so far, but it did show up in a critique of the draft plan offered jointly by 19 conservation groups: in a decade in which the wolves' return was being greeted with jubilation by most Californians, the draft plan seemingly regarded wolves as sabout as welcome as the Zika virus. According to that letter:

The tone of the state’s wolf Plan should reflect that the return of wolves heralds a historic moment in conservation history in California and an incredible opportunity to restore a species whose presence and natural hunting practices lead to healthier, more biodiverse ecosystems. Instead, the Draft Wolf Plan’s tone regarding wolves is dry and filled with worry and reservations. Its pages contain words like “challenge,” “challenging” and “concerned.”

Nonetheless, wildlife advocates are responding to the release of the final plan with tempered praise. 

“The ongoing arrival of wolves in California is cause for celebration and makes the state wolf plan’s provisions all the more important,” stated Kimberly Baker, public land advocate for the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata. “Wolf recovery will bring the essence of wild back to California and reiterates the need for landscape connectivity.”

The plan's suggestion that the state offer training and support for non-lethal wolf control methods in ranching country, and possibly even establish a fund to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves, also drew praise.

“It’s exciting that nonlethal methods of reducing wolf-livestock conflicts are such a foundational element of this plan, because we know they work,” said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Land and Wildlife Program. “We want to give these magnificent animals every possible chance to survive and thrive here in California. So we look forward to working with the Department to ensure that happens.” 

Banner image: OR-25, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

For the record: An earlier version of this article mixed up some details about the draft and final plans' state and federal delisting thresholds. We regret the error. 

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