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First wolf pack found in California in nearly a century

A gray wolf pack has established itself in Northern California, state wildlife officials confirmed on Thursday, the first family of wolves known in the state in nearly 100 years.

The group — two adult black-furred gray wolves and five 4-month-old pups — will be known as the Shasta Pack.

The announcement came after trail cameras in remote Siskiyou County captured a series of photographs in May and June of what appeared to be a wolf. Biologists retrieved scat samples and placed more cameras in the area, hoping for a better look.

On Aug. 9, the cameras photographed two separate black-furred wolves, believed to be adults. Five black wolf pups were photographed in the same spot. The evidence was in: It was clearly a pack.

State wildlife authorities last year added gray wolves to California's endangered species list, even though no wolves were known to be in the state. Officials said they anticipated that wolves beginning to establish in Oregon would eventually find their way into California’s northern counties.

But biologists did not anticipate discovering an established pack in the state this soon. California’s plan to manage wolves is not yet complete.

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“We were really excited if not amazed” at how rapidly wolves have reappeared in Northern California, said Eric Loft, chief of the Wildlife Branch of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They have beat us to the punch.”

Officials said the adult wolves may have dispersed from Oregon's Rogue Pack but won't know the animals' lineage until genetic tests are completed.

Karen Kovacs, who has been monitoring the wolves for the state, said the adult wolves in the Shasta Pack are not likely the progeny of OR7, the lone male who wandered Oregon and California in 2011. That male was the first confirmed wolf in California since 1924.

OR7 now has a mate and is part of a pack in Oregon. The Oregon-Washington region is home to an estimated 145 wolves in 31 packs.

Kovacs said biologists will try to place a radio collar on at least one of the Shasta Pack adults.

Wolves in the West have generally thrived since they were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Wolves were afforded federal protections in 1973, after being hunted to near-extinction. Their presence in a now-urbanized West has been controversial and states have successfully petitioned to manage the animals, creating a sometimes confusing legal patchwork. Wolves do not have federal protection in Alaska, Idaho, Montana and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington.

Determining wolf populations in the Northern Rockies is imprecise, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are at least 1,657 wolves in 282 packs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Federal biologists consider wolf populations to be stable.

Wolves now occupy about 10% of their former range and biologists across the West have marveled at the large carnivore's capacity to adapt to significantly altered landscapes and navigate areas of encroaching human development.

Kovacs called the successful reintroduction of wolves “remarkable.”

“These are very resilient critters,” she said.

In fact, the most serious impediment to wolf reintroduction has been animosity toward them from some ranchers and hunters, who say wolves kill livestock and reduce game herds on public lands.

The discovery of the Shasta Pack comes as deer hunting season begins in Siskiyou County. It is illegal to harm an endangered species, but some light-colored wolves have been killed by shooters who say they mistook the animals for coyotes.

No such confusion will be possible with the animals in the Shasta Pack, Kovacs said. “It’s going to be pretty hard to look at a black wolf and conclude it’s a coyote.”

julie.cart@latimes.com

Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.

Twitter: @julie.cart

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

7:09 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with information on wolf populations throughout the West and more details on plans to monitor the Shasta Pack in Northern California.

This article was originally published at 1:06 p.m.

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