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KPBS Midday Edition

Preparing For The Return of Gray Wolves To California

GrayWolf_OR-10_ODFW.jpg
Gray Wolves In Yellowstone
Preparing For The Return of Gray Wolves To California
Preparing For The Return of Gray Wolves To California GUEST:Mike Sutton, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, which voted this summer to grant endangered status to the gray wolf

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. An event in Julian this Saturday will explore the return of the gray wolf. And, as one California wildlife expert puts it, the public is fascinated by the issue of wolves in the West. Lately there have been reasons for that fascination to increase. Years ago, a wolf wandering from Oregon became the first gray wolf seen in California for almost 100 years. Months ago, the wolf was put on the states endangered species list, which paves the way for the wolves return to California. I would like to welcome my guest Mike Sutton. Welcome to the program. MIKE SUTTON: Good afternoon Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This event is part of what has been designated wolf awareness week. Why do we need such a week? MIKE SUTTON: The gray wolf is coming back to California after nearly 100 years missing in action. It has caused great interest and controversy among the people of California, and certainly some consternation among the ranching and farming communities in Northern California. The more we can help people understand how to coexist with wolves, the better we will be. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a brief description of how wolves disappeared from California and the West? MIKE SUTTON: It is no secret that we declared war on predators 100 years ago as we colonized the West and expanded ranching and farming throughout the American West. We shot the grizzly bear and it disappeared from California 100 years ago. The gray wolf disappeared, we shot mountain lions, and there were federal and state bounties on predators like this. We wiped out many predators throughout the American West and have slowly, in a more on lightened age now, have been bringing them back. The gray wolf has been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. They are doing well there and the population has expanded to Oregon. And recently to the extreme northern California. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us the story of the Wolf called OR-7. It is a wolf who wandered into California in 2011 from Oregon and wandered back to Oregon to find a mate. MIKE SUTTON: Exactly. OR-7 is the designation of a wolf from one of the packs in Northeast Oregon. He has got a radio collar on, so we can follow his movements. This particular wolf was a long distance traveler who traveled all the way from Northeast Oregon to Southern Oregon, and crossed the border into Northern California. He may not have been the only one, but he was the only one with a radio collar who we could follow. He became the first wolf in more than 80 years to return to the state of California with no help from us. The state has no plans to reintroduce wolves actively, but we are taking it possible for them to recolonize by themselves. OR-7 was the pioneer of that effort. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What does that wolf tell us about whether wolves can survive in California? MIKE SUTTON: It tells us that wolves are very resilient. They are capable of traveling long distances. It turned out that just before we made our decision in June to list the gray wolf as endangered, he was discovered to have found a mate in Southern Oregon and had a litter of at least three pups in the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon, not far from the California border. By this time it is quite possible some of those wolves, none of which have collars, or already back in California. Our actions are clearing the way for the Wolf return to the state. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You told us that wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. What can you tell us about how the reintroduction of wolves into the park changes ecosystem? MIKE SUTTON: In the 1980s, I served as a national park ranger in Yellowstone, prior to the wolves being reintroduced. At the time, the elk and deer herds were over populating, eating all of the range and experiencing massive die offs in the absence of their main predator. Herds were not doing well. That is one of the reasons the Park service decided to bring wolves back to balance the ecosystem. It worked spectacularly well. Today, there are number of wolf packs in the northern range of Yellowstone. They keep the elk populations under control. The ecosystem is back in balance, and now the wolves have spread throughout the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and now Oregon and California. It is a natural progression of the species reintroduced to its historic range. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is a theory called trophic cascade, when you reintroduce a predator it changes the ecosystem, and in Yellowstone they claim it has changed the rivers. How has that happened? MIKE SUTTON: It is true that when you restore the balance of an ecosystem by restoring the top editor, the Wolf in this case, it brings the populations of prey species like elk and deer back into balance with the ecosystem. It improves the vegetation, it improves the entire landscape, including the rivers of the state. We expect that to happen across the American West as carnivores reintroduce themselves. The grizzly bear of course is another species in California on our state flag. We used to have grizzly bears in California. There is no evidence they are anywhere near being reintroduced to California, but that is another editor we used to have that we do not anymore. We could see, at some point in the future, a restoration of the grizzly bear to California, but nobody is talking about that now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One group you have mentioned adamantly against the reintroduction of wolves to California are ranchers. Is there any way to keep their livestock safe? MIKE SUTTON: There is, in fact we concluded a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Oregon Fish and wildlife commission. Ranchers in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana and with was every day, and they have developed techniques to avoid conflict between livestock and wolves. Among other things, for example, they have purchased guard dogs who help guard the flocks of sheep and cattle, and keep them safe from wolves. It tends to deter wolves from harming livestock. The bottom line is that we believe it will be possible for ranchers and farmers to coexist with wolves. I completely understand the reticence, and the nervousness that the ranching and farming communities have. They have not had to deal with wolves in nearly 100 years and have no experience. We are trying to encourage all stakeholders to work with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on a wolf task force, a working group to develop a management plan for wolves as they returned to California. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some other experts are concerned that bringing back walls into California will not have the same beneficial effects as they did on Yellowstone, because of what they call California as a mosaic of natural and altered landscapes. There is too much developing in the state already for wolves to have that much of an impact. MIKE SUTTON: It is true that California is more populated in states like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. We have increasing examples of urban wildlife interactions. Even in San Diego with coyotes and minimize, it is inevitable in a state with so many people. But, For it is very diverse with remote parts of the state as well. It is no surprise that wolves have begun to colonize parts of North and Northeastern California, where there are not as many people. I think we will have to wait and see how it works for wolves. I will imagine that they will probably stay in areas where there is not a lot of human presence. I do not expect we will see wolves in Southern California anytime soon, except perhaps the Mexican. There is a population of wolves in Mexico that is also in danger. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What does it mean to be on the endangered species list, in terms of protection for the gray wolf? MIKE SUTTON: When we add a species to the endangered species list, it means that the animals and plants are fully protected from anything, hunting, killing, or otherwise interfering with the normal evolution and life of the species. It means the animal is fully protected, and we have to make sure that human activity does not impact the success of the wolves successful reintegration into the state. Wolves are on their way. There is no doubt that they are coming back. What we did by adding the species to the endangered list is to clear a way for that to happen. But the devil is in the details. That is why the management plan I spoke of earlier is so important. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A wildlife expert is reported as saying that the people most enchanted by the idea of wolves usually do not have to come into direct contact with them. Is there any truth to that? MIKE SUTTON: There is no doubt that the greatest trepidation about the return of wolves to California is by people who may have to interact with them first, the ranchers and farmers of Northern California. I completely understand and that is a legitimate concern. The good news is, they are working with state officials and the Department of Fish and wildlife to develop a plan that will address potential conflicts and find a way to resolve them. We know that farmers and ranchers can live with wolves, because they do it in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming every day. I understand the trepidation, but I am confident we can overcome them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People tend to be afraid of, I think that has been a problem in talking about reintroducing wolves in various places in the American West. Do people have a reason? I'm not talking about ranchers necessarily, two people have a reason to be afraid of wolves? MIKE SUTTON: This is not your pet poodle by any means. These are fierce predators, that is true of any wild editor, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, and so forth. I have hiked in many areas work Risley bears and wolves are both present. Yet to be cautious to keep your distance. Host of these animals have no interest in coming in contact with humans either, because they know that that things happen when they come in contact with livestock and humans. Most of them avoid humans as best as they can. I am hoping that as the wolf reduces itself to California, we will see very few incidents of human wolf interactions, except with binoculars and cameras. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You said that there are no plans to reintroduce wolves or take them from one part of the West and put them in California. But is there any timeline that wildlife experts have, considering that those wolf pups may have Artie crossed into Northern California? We might see a pack develop somewhere in a remote region of northern California? MIKE SUTTON: It could be happening already and we might not even know about it, because not all wolves have radio colors. The wolves have their own timeline for this. We work caught by surprise when OR-7 showed up in California. What we are trying to do now, as wildlife managers, is to think ahead and plan ahead for this so we are not caught by surprise, and our ranching and farming industries and are wildlife industry will have a chance to respond properly to wolves coming back to the state in the first time in nearly a century. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you expecting a political battle over this? MIKE SUTTON: I think the devil is in the detail with many of these wildlife management challenges. The best way for everyone to plan ahead and avoid conflict is to participate in the state Department of Fish and wildlife effort to put together a comprehensive wolf management plan. I am happy to report that the Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen's Association of renters and farmers, all of the stakeholders are working together, they were working together before we listed the wolf as endangered, and that has continued. That is exactly the right thing to have happen. That is how we will avoid conflict as Bulls reintroduce themselves to the states. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The fundraising event for the California Wolf Center in Julian takes place this Saturday. Thank you so much for your time.

An October event in Julian explored the return of the gray wolf. As one California wildlife expert puts it, the public is fascinated by the issue of wolves in the West.

“It has caused great interest and controversy among the people of California and certainly some consternation among the ranching and farming communities in Northern California. The more we can help people understand how to coexist with wolves the better off we’ll be," said Mike Sutton, president of the California Fish and Game Commission.

Lately there have been some real reasons for that fascination to increase. Three years ago, a wolf wandering from Oregon became the first gray wolf seen in California for almost a hundred years. And just months ago the gray wolf was placed on the state's endangered species list, paving the way for the wolf's return to California and other states.

“The gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming, reintroduced to Montana and Idaho, and they’re doing quite well there and the population is expanding," Sutton said.

Sutton said this reintroduction could benefit the overall health of surrounding wildlife.

"When you restore the balance of an ecosystem by restoring the top predator, the wolf in this case, it brings the population of prey species like elk and deer back into better balance with the ecosystem," Sutton said. "It improves the vegetation, it improves the entire landscape, including the rivers of the entire state."