California has largely escaped two decades of controversy surrounding the resurgence of wolves in the West, but the state stepped firmly into the fray Wednesday as wildlife officials voted to extend endangered species protections to gray wolves.
Although no wolves are known to exist in California, their return is inevitable as their numbers continue to swell nearly 20 years after they were reintroduced in and around Yellowstone National Park, biologists say.
In a 3-1 vote, the California Fish and Game Commission declined to follow the recommendation of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which argued that a pending wolf management plan would protect the animals while allowing flexibility for ranchers and others who say the predators will attack livestock and decimate elk herds. The vote disappointed many in the state's agriculture industry.
FOR THE RECORD, June 5, 2014: An earlier version of this article included a caption that referred to the photograph of two Mexican gray wolf pups, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to remove protections for all gray wolves in the Lower 48 states. As the story noted, the agency proposes to add the subspecies of Mexican gray wolves to federal endangered species list.
"I was hopeful that the commission would place a lot of value in that recommendation," said Noelle Cremers of the California Farm Bureau Federation, which opposed the wolf's listing as endangered.
The return of wolves to California seemed more likely with an announcement Wednesday that wildlife officials in Oregon spotted two pups believed to be the offspring of OR7, the young male wolf that beginning in 2011 wandered between Oregon and Northern California. Authorities in Oregon last month surmised that OR7 had found a mate and began denning.
California now joins Oregon and Washington in providing safe passage to wolves that are fitfully repopulating their former range.
"The Pacific states are the last, best place for wolves," said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the listing. "We have the progressive attitudes and social values where people embrace wildlife, no matter if it's got teeth and claws."
Before the commission voted, a three-hour hearing in Fortuna, in Humboldt County, featured passionate and at times tearful testimony. Some in attendance wore wolf costumes, and one commenter broke into an a cappella ode to wolves. Commissioners acknowledged the heat that the wolf issue generates and warned those in attendance to remain civil, an admonition that was generally followed.
The commission has gingerly managed a series of public meetings to ensure all interested parties had a say. Wednesday's session was scheduled after the board postponed a vote on the matter in April to give more stakeholders in Northern California a voice.
Commission member Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, a Humboldt County native, worried that a vote to list would unravel the 18-month process to craft a wolf management plan. "Stakeholders will walk away," she said. "We need to slow it down." Hers was the sole dissenting vote.
But commission President Michael Sutton, a former ranger in Yellowstone National Park, telegraphed the day's outcome when he said, "There is no more iconic animal in the American West than this one. We owe it to them to do everything we can to help them recolonize their historic range in our state."
The listing decision does not derail the state's effort to plan for wolf management, which is expected to be finalized in December. The plan would be used in conjunction with the state's endangered species law and probably guide how much leeway livestock interests and others would have to protect herds and seek compensation for losses.
Kirk Wilbur of the California Cattlemen's Assn. called the listing decision a blow to the wolf management plan but stopped short of saying his group would pull out of the process.
"We all have to get back with our folks and do some talking," he said.
The decision is believed to be the first time California has afforded endangered species protections to an animal not extant in the state.
As a candidate species in California, wolves have already been protected on an interim basis. But the Fish and Wildlife Department in February submitted a 255-page wolf status review that recommended against listing.
Complicating the state's decision is the pending proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to removed protections for all gray wolves in the Lower 48 states. The agency also proposes to add the subspecies of Mexican wolves to federal endangered species list.
The federal decision also has been postponed and is not expected until sometime next year.