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Ranchers, Farmers Sue to Keep California Gray Wolves Unprotected

Founding member of  California's Lassen Pack | Photo: CDFW

If you thought all Californians were welcoming the state's new gray wolf population with open arms, think again. Two agricultural trade groups have hired a conservative non-profit law firm to try to roll back the state's protections on the wolves, who have slowly been returning to California over the last few years.

The groups, the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation, are suing the California Fish and Game Commission, charging that the Commission broke the law when it voted in June 2014 to list gray wolves as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. 

Among the groups' arguments is an assertion that the wolves now inhabiting northern California aren't actually native to the state. But that argument flies in the face of the last few decades' advances in science. And it obscures one of the grandest wolf stories ever told, an epic at least 15,000 years in the making, of which the wolf's return to California is merely the latest chapter. 

That 2014 Commission vote followed a long campaign by environmental activists to protect the wolves, fearing that the species would likely be stripped of existing protections under the federal Endangered Species Act. That's still a possibility; the previous delisting efforts took place under the Obama administration, and the Trump administration promises to take an even harder line on leaving wolves without protection. 

Protection from who? From ranchers, mainly, and farmers, and other people whose livelihoods depend on raising animals they fear might become an addition to the menu for an expanding wolf population. While a majority of ranchers and farmers are law-abiding and probably most appreciate wolves and other wild animals, resentment of wolf recovery among livestock growers has been a drumbeat in Western politics for decades.

The groups filing the lawsuit against the Fish and Game Commission, represented in San Diego County Superior Court by the Pacific Legal Foundation, charge that the Commission broke state law when it voted to protect California's new wolves for three reasons. First, the groups charge that the state's new wolf population is made up of animals belonging to a subspecies, the northwestern wolf or Canis lupus occidentalis, that didn't exist in the state before Americans wiped out the species in the 1920s. The groups' complaint charges that before the 1920s, California was documented to have populations of the Great Plains wolf (Canis lupus nubilus) and the Mexican wolf, a.k.a. Canis lupus baileyi. Since the state's new wolves represent a subspecies new to the state, say the plaintiffs, the Fish and Game Commission didn't have the legal authority to protect them under the California Endangered Species Act, which excludes non-native species and subspecies from protection.

The groups also charge that the gray wolf isn't in peril across its range in North America, citing a highly controversial 2013 finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that the Commission erred by solely considering the wolf's status in California when it voted. Lastly, the complaint says that the Commission didn't have the legal authority to list the wolf in 2014, based solely on the occasional presence in the state of just one wolf — namely, the celebrated OR-7.

Based on those arguments, the case would seem to be a bit of a long shot. There's precedent for California listing species that didn't permanently reside in the state; in 1971, the Commission listed both the wolverine and the Guadalupe fur seal under the California ESA, despite the seal's only occasional presence in the state and the utter lack of California wolverine sightings since the 1920s. (That changed in 2008 when a wolverine was documented in Tahoe National Forest.)

There's also abundant legal precedent establishing that a species' "range," as defined for purposes of considering protection under the California Endangered Species Act, means "range in the state of California."

The argument that California's current resident wolves aren't members of a subspecies native to the state is a bit more complicated.

A courtroom isn't the best place to untangle complicated scientific questions on which scientists have not yet approached consensus, but that's what often happens. To start with, the plaintiffs' allegation that California's current-day wolves are non-native relies on a badly outdated assumption about the definition of the term "native." Even if the groups' take on California's historic wolf subspecies turns out to be accurate, historic range isn't the main determining factor in whether a species is native to a place. Instead, scientists consider a species or subspecies native to a place if its members got to that place without human intervention, either deliberate or accidental. That would definitely seem to include California's wolf population. By the scientists' definition, those wolves are native to the state of California even if they got here after 2011.

Biologists are far from having reached consensus as to the validity of many suggested wolf subspecies. Since the 19th Century biologists have broken gray wolves into more than two dozen North American subspecies, then either recombined those subspecies or declared them full species, then reassigned subspecies from one species to another.

The Shasta Pack, first wolf pack in California in nearly a century, in the early days | Photo: CDFW
The Shasta Pack, first wolf pack in California in nearly a century, in the early days | Photo: CDFW

Once cheap genome sequencing became available in the 1990s, researchers found that much of their predecessors' work in categorizing wolves needed to be discarded, as it was based on anatomical details at the macro scale rather than on actual patterns of ancestry that genetic analysis began to reveal. 

The messy wolf-sorting process continues, often with significant non-scientific political pressure in favor of one arrangement or another. Some researchers now figure that California likely had native wolves before 1920 that were closely related to both the groups formerly named as northwestern wolves and Great Plains wolves. 

We've learned more from genetic study of gray wolves than just that our old ideas of subspecies need to be torn down and rebuilt. We've also learned a little bit about how gray wolves colonized North America. The wolves actually evolved on the other side of the planet, in Eurasia, and migrated to North America during the late Pleistocene. Untangling the genetic code of wolves living in present-day North America has revealed that there were likely three distinct periods during which Eurasian gray wolves crossed into North America, the first around 500,000 years ago, and the last something like 15,000 years ago.

Those migrations likely corresponded to warm periods between Ice Ages: during an Ice Age,  the land between Eurasia and North America would have been impassable, but wolves readily moved across the Bering Land Bridge when the ice melted back. Some of the differences between those separate groups of wolves still persist in the present day: Mexican wolves, for instance, are conjectured by some to be descendants of the wolves that came across in the first migration half a million years ago..  

The wolves that arrived in the last of those migrations found a continent already pretty full of wolves, with each pack zealously guarding its turf. They did expand their share of the continent, both through direct competition and through interbreeding with neighbors from the previous migration, but their descendants are more or less still restricted to the northwestern part of North America. They took territory little by little over 15,000 years. Their range maps, approximately, to the range the older subspecies maps assign to Canis lupus occidentalis.

That's the northwestern wolf, which the Pacific Legal Foundation brief implies is now an interloper loping into California.

Look at it this way. If the Pacific Legal Foundation's "native subspecies" arguments were valid — which they almost certainly aren't — the northwestern wolves they're calling non-native for encroaching on the former California territory of Great Plains wolves are merely continuing a 15,000-year-old tradition of encroachment. That's about 5,000 years older than the tradition of raising domesticated cattle, and around 10,000 years older than the tradition of writing, now seen in its fullest flower in court filings from conservative legal groups. 

We at least could show a little respect for the old ways.

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