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Wildlife Group Asks For Calif. Wolf Protections

The only gray wolf in California arrived after heading south out of Oregon last year while his brother headed east into Idaho, moves that sealed each of their fates.

The brother is dead, shot illegally by a hunter this month, but in the Golden State wildlife advocates are demanding lifesaving protections for the lone wolf known as OR-7. A GPS satellite maps the wolf's travels, and he is the first of the predators to roam within the state's boundaries since 1924, when the last gray wolf was killed by a trapper intent on making the West safe for cattle.

On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Game Commission to protect gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act. Though gray wolves are protected by the federal act, listing the wolves in California would mean wildlife officials must consider a recovery plan.

"There's really no guide for the management of the gray wolf in California," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"If that one wolf is to become many, wolves need help so they don't get killed," Greenwald wrote.

If the wolf were protected it would press authorities to determine how many wolves would be needed to populate a given area before it would not be considered endangered. It would include a plan to deal with rancher conflicts over livestock depredation, tools for ranchers to use to avoid conflicts, and monitoring for disease such as distemper and rabies.

Already the California Department of Fish and Game has been preparing for the wolves' return. Department officials are meeting with ranchers and environmental groups as they continue work on a management plan that was begun before the wolf even crossed the border.

"We are really trying to be proactive," said Karen Kovacs, the wildlife program manager in the northern region the wolf is roaming. "We've asked for additional funds that would dedicate staff to focus solely on wolf management, but it depends on what the governor believes is most important. We have water and fish issues in this state too."

Illegal hunting and car strikes are the primary threats to gray wolves in California, which the petition argues will increase without endangered species status. Oregon and Washington listed the gray wolf before any of the species migrated there. The petition filed with the state says that growing populations in Oregon and the Washington Cascades mean "wolves are likely to continue to naturally disperse to California, and to establish a breeding population." It cited a 2001 study that concluded that the northeast corner of California could support as many as 470 wolves.

Gray wolves are much bigger than coyotes and are the ancestors of domestic dogs. They stand three-feet at the shoulder with massive heads, a bite powerful enough to snap a bone, and paws up to six-inches wide.

A 1995 plan to reintroduce a pack in Idaho and around Yellowstone National Park has led to the predator's numbers multiplying. But the program also has run into controversy as attacks on livestock have become a point of tension between ranchers and conservationists in the West.

OR-7 comes from a pack that crossed into Oregon, where 24 now live.

The story of OR-7 - the seventh affixed with a GPS collar in Oregon - has been well documented as he began meandering south in September, then crossed the border into Siskiyou County around New Year's. He has impressed wildlife experts with his endurance, traveling 20 air miles a day as he headed deeper into the state through Shasta and Lassen counties before turning back toward the border this month. A satellite tracked his every move.

Meanwhile two members of his Imnaha pack back home have bounties on their heads, including OR-7's father, because they've developed a taste for cattle. Conservation groups sued the state after the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued the kill order. A judge granted a stay after wildlife advocates argued that the pack would die out.

OR-7's time in California has been less controversial. No incidents of cattle killing have been reported, and reports of paw print sightings make the news. He was tagged with the name Journey after a contest in Oregon, but his Twitter account following his travels is WolfOR7, with the following profile: "Native Oregonian, now living in California. Grew up in troubled family. Daddy wanted by the law. Hobbies: wandering, ungulates. Don't call me Journey."

Even if OR-7 heads back into Oregon, wildlife advocates say it's only a matter of time before gray wolf territory expands into California for good.

"California has a lot of wolf habitat," Greenwald said. "We'd like to think that California would welcome wolves back."

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