- Pacific West Status
- Federal Status
This is only the beginning. Wolves have just begun to return to the Pacific West in places such as the Cascade Mountains. These wolves are vital to the health of our Pacific West ecosystems and warrant sound and careful protection. Losing federal or state protections, could make this fragile population more vulnerable and potentially set back recovery in the entire Pacific West region.
Though federal protection may be ending for wolves, other than Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, across the lower 48 states, states such as Oregon and Washington have given statewide protection to wolves under state Endangered Species Acts. Additionally, in light of lone wolf OR-7 traveling into California, the state is currently evaluating whether to afford wolves state protection and is drafting a wolf management plan.
As wolves recover in the U.S., their greatest threat will continue to be conflict with humans. Though wolves pose little threat to humans, they occasionally will prey on livestock causing economic loss to the livestock industry. As a result wolves may be killed in retaliation to livestock depredation. This threat and increasing hunting pressure in some states may cause difficulties for wolves as they recover.
Another serious threat to wolves is habitat loss from encroaching human development. Wolves need space to move and establish territories. These territories can vary in range but can be as large as 1,000 square miles. Space for wolves to move is vitally important to their recovery. As we grow in population and develop in areas close or in wolf habitat, wolves will be restricted in available high quality habitat. Human encroachment on wolf habitat will also bring people in closer proximity to wolves and may increase the frequency of human and wolf conflict.
As wolves recover throughout the rest of the nation, combating the public’s fear and misinformation about wolves will continue to be a vital part of creating a safe and stable landscape where wolves and humans can live together.
Over time, these wolves have adapted to local and changing climatic and habitat conditions, creating a unique genetic profile. As of December 2015, there are 12 confirmed packs in Oregon (and 11 breeding pairs) and 18 confirmed packs in Washington (and 8 breeding pairs). In August 2015, California welcomed home its first wolf pack in nearly a century.
In light of the return of wolves to the Pacific West, California, Oregon, and Washington are taking major steps to help wolves recover. Washington and Oregon have developed state wolf conservation and management plans, and California released its draft wolf conservation plan in late 2015. Though wolves are only just beginning to recover in California, an administrative petition to list the wolf under California’s Endangered Species Act was filed by conservation groups in early 2012 and after two years of public hearings, reports from the state agency, significant public testimony and scientific peer reviews, the state fish and game commission voted in June of 2014 to fully protect wolves as a state-endangered species.
Wolves once roamed through parts of California’s Coastal Range, however, in the early 1900s, hunters decimated wolves’ natural prey and, eventually with the help of state-enacted bounties, eradicated wolves. By the middle of the 1920s, wolves were completely eradicated from the state, with the last trapped wolf documented in 1924.
After an absence of nearly 90 years, wolves are beginning to return to the state. In 2011, a lone male wolf known as OR-7 dispersed from the Imnaha pack in northeast Oregon down into California’s Modoc Plateau. OR-7’s journey moved California into action to prepare for the gray wolf’s inevitable return to the state.
In 2012, conservation organizations petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the gray wolf as endangered, initiating a process to determine whether gray wolves in California will be afforded state protections as they recover. Despite the overwhelming legal and scientific evidence demonstrating that wolves should be listed, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended to the Commission that wolves not be listed. However, science and the law prevailed and on June 4, 2014, the Commission voted to fully protect wolves under California’s Endangered Species Act. California then convened a group of stakeholders to draft a Wolf Conservation Plan (Plan) and the same group of stakeholders provided input during this process. In the middle of this drafting process, California welcomed home its first wolf pack, the Shasta pack, in early August 2015. This is the first wolf pack to return to the state in nearly a century.
Shortly after the wolves’ return to California, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) released the draft Plan at the end of 2015. The Plan is currently under review by CDFW.
Gray wolves were once common in Oregon, occupying most of the state. However, a deliberate effort to eradicate the species was successful by the late 1940s. Wolves were listed in Oregon as endangered under the State ESA in 1987. After an absence of over half a century, wolves began to take their first tentative steps towards recovery. Having dispersed from Idaho, the native species is once again trying to make a home in Oregon with three confirmed wolves documented in Oregon between 1999-2000.
In 2008, the Imnaha pack was confirmed as Oregon’s first pack since the eradication nearly 60 years ago. In a recent report from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, it was confirmed that as of December 31, 2015, Oregon’s wolf population has expanded to at least 110 confirmed wolves in 12 confirmed packs. The vast majority of these wolves reside in northeastern Oregon and some packs reside in the southern part of the state.
In anticipation of the return of wolves, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with a diverse stakeholder group, completed a wolf conservation and management plan in 2005. It went through a five-year review in 2010 where tweaks were made to the plan. A legal challenge by conservation organizations to the state’s lethal control program in fall 2011 led to a settlement agreement in summer 2013 among some of the plaintiffs, the state and the cattlemen.
This resulted in more agency transparency with its wolf management program, the development of wolf/livestock conflict deterrence plans in areas of wolf activity, and the required use of documented proactive, non-lethal conflict reduction measures in order for a depredation to qualify toward the “chronic depredation” standard which became defined as four depredation by the same wolf or wolves within a six-month period.
In 2015, Oregon’s wolf plan and wolf populations face significant potential changes and challenges. The terms of the legal settlement expired and now Oregon’s wolves in the eastern half of the state face significantly less protective standards before lethal control can be resorted to when there are instances of wolf-livestock conflict. Now there need be only two depredations in an undefined period of time, before wolves can be killed for causing livestock losses, and the requirements for what nonlethal conflict-prevention measure ranchers must employ before wolves can be killed are also less stringent. In 2015, the Oregon wolf plan will also be undergoing a required five-year review, and the conservation community will keep the public apprised of when and how to weigh in. Finally, because Oregon’s wolf population reached a certain number of breeding pairs at the end of 2014, the wolf plan allows for the state fish and wildlife agency (ODFW) to recommend whether the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission should initiate a process to remove wolves from the protections of the Oregon Endangered Species Act.
Delisting wolves before they have achieved greater population numbers and much greater distribution across suitable wolf habitat in the state is premature. The conservation community has already weighed in to oppose ODFW’s delisting recommendation and continues to keep the public apprised of opportunities for written comments and testimony to give to the Commission. Despite these efforts, the Commission voted to delist wolves from the state’s Endangered Species Act on November 9, 2015.
Early settlers described gray wolves as common to Washington and speculated that one or more wolf packs may have made their homes in each of the major river valleys in the state. By the 1900s, after years of animosity towards predators and government-sponsored bounty payments, wolves were gone from much of the Northwest. Following the federal government’s listing of gray wolves as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Washington followed suit by giving wolves endangered species status under the Washington State ESA in 1980.
Wolves have begun returning naturally to Washington, filtering in across the borders from Idaho and southward from the wilds of British Columbia. Washington’s Lookout pack was the first to return in 2008. After a broad stakeholder process, in 2011 the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a conservation and management plan for wolves. This provides protection for recovering gray wolves and offers ample options for livestock owners and hunters who may be affected by the return of wolves.
According to the annual survey from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, as of December 31, 2015, there are 18 confirmed packs in the state and a total of 90 wolves. In November 2015, Washington state officials announced the confirmation of a new pack, the Loup Loup pack, in North-Central Washington.
The state continues to make tremendous forward progress as it convenes collaborative group meetings among livestock producers, conservationists, state agency representatives and landowners to work towards conflict resolution and promotion of co-existence and non-lethal practices as it relates to wolf conservation and management.
If ESA protections are removed, management of wolves will be handed over to state agencies, which may result in increased lethal actions, legal hunts, and other activities that could prevent gray wolves from recovering in states where they are barely struggling to gain a foothold. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed continued protection and expanded recovery of the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest U.S.
Wolves will face deleterious effects from losing federal protections. States with significant habitat for wolves, such as California, Colorado, and Utah, could face serious obstacles in helping wolves reestablish themselves. In response to the USFWS delisting proposal, conservation organizations, scientists, politicians, and concerned citizens are asking the USFWS and Secretary Sally Jewell to reconsider their proposal.
Particularly, in the Pacific West, wolves will face even greater obstacles since their recovery may now be short circuited by the agency’s action.
Here are a few key reasons federal protections for wolves in the Pacific West are important:
- Wolves perform a crucial role in maintaining wildlife diversity and ecosystem function. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to turn their backs on wolves means millions of acres of habitat will be without the benefits from wolves for years or decades to come – and some areas may never see the return of wolves.
- Wolves west of the Rockies are few in number and at a fragile stage. Loss of protection now could put at risk “seed” packs like the Teanaway and Wenatchee Packs in Washington State that are critical to establishing a viable population in the Pacific West.
- Wolves are still dispersing into their historical range in the Pacific West states of Washington, Oregon and California. In 2011, a lone wolf known as OR-7 dispersed from the Imnaha Pack in Oregon to wander through California’s southern Cascades and Modoc Plateau. OR-7 was the first wolf to enter the state of California in nearly 90 years. Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act allows for the continued safety of wolves as they return to their historic range in the Pacific West.
- Though some states in the Pacific West region such as Washington and Oregon have state plans that call for recovery in the Cascades/Coast region, California is just now developing its state wolf plan and many other states with good wolf habitat but no wolves yet are lacking recovery plans altogether. Furthermore, state penalties for poaching a wolf are minimal and subject to local politics. Without the stricter penalties that come with Endangered Species Act protection (up to $50,000 and a year in jail), discouraging illegal killing is much more of a challenge.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should maintain federal protections for wolves across the Lower 48 and recognize Pacific West wolves as a distinct population. This would provide meaningful protection where adequate state recovery plans are still lacking.