In late May, a suspected wolf attack on an adult cow in eastern Plumas County was confirmed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) after investigators identified the presence of three wolves at the carcass of the killed livestock. The recent encounter, and the three wolves seen on camera at the attack site together, brings into question whether a second wolf pack may now be in the Golden State, while also shedding light on the increased need for co-existing solutions for livestock and wolves.
Over the past ten years, the state of California has seen its first wolves return to native territory after a near 90-year absence. Their triumphant return first began in 2011, when an individual wolf identified as OR-7 arrived in Siskiyou County. The presence of California’s first wolf pack, however, did not come until a few years later.
“In 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, announced that California had its first known wolf pack, the Shasta pack, which got its name from its territory in the shadows of Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou County,” said Pamela Flick, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The Shasta pack had a minimum of five pups that year before they subsequently disappeared, so they were only around for one year.”
The Shasta pack was last seen in mid-November of 2015, disappearing not long after an investigation by CDFW determined they had likely killed a calf in the area. Then in 2016, CDFW announced the presence of a new wolf pack, the Lassen pack, in the Lassen National Forest in Lassen County. The Lassen pack has successfully reproduced over the past several years and is currently the only known wolf pack present in California.
While both packs are of the Canis lupus species, more commonly known as gray wolves, the wolves in the Shasta pack had black coats, which differed from the Lassen pack’s gray-colored coats.
The return of wolf packs to northern California is lauded as evidence of Mother Nature’s resilience and signals a path toward healthier ecosystems. However, wolf presence also generates concern for local livestock producers and ranchers, as evidenced by the recent attack in eastern Plumas County.
“The Lassen pack straddles the border between southern Lassen County and northern Plumas County, but it’s really interesting that the Department released in the investigation report that they saw a minimum of three wolves on a camera trap,” Flick said. “The report noted that the rancher or the ranch-hand saw three wolves, but to have that evidence on a trail camera is really what caused me to feel like there is a potential for a new wolf pack in eastern Plumas County.”
Eastern Plumas County has been known to have wolf-presence, but that presence has typically been that of individual or dispersing wolves.
“When non-resident wolves are moving about, you’ll see them traveling as a single wolf or in pairs like the Whaleback pair, which is up in the old Shasta pack territory in Siskiyou County,” Flick explained. “There’s a potential that the Whaleback pair may have reproduced this year, but CDFW has not announced that. If that’s the case, that would be newsworthy because California has never had two concurrent packs in contemporary times. We had the Shasta pack for one year and then we had the Lassen pack the next year, but we’ve never had two at the same time.”
Consequently, the investigation’s camera evidence of three wolves traveling together raises more questions than it answers.
“I’ve never heard of three wolves traveling together, so that’s what leads me to think that there may very well be a pack in eastern Plumas County,” Flick said. “It could be that those are members of the Lassen pack that have splintered off and are just exploring some new territory southeast of where their home territory is, but that remains to be seen. We’ll just have to stand-by for any confirmation from CDFW on that.”
In the meantime, organizations like Flick’s Defenders of Wildlife and agencies like the CDFW are working with local livestock producers to mitigate the risk of further wolf attacks.
“Now that wolves have made their return to the California landscape, it’s really important that we work to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts whenever possible,” Flick said. “There are a variety of methods and tools, one of which is fladry, essentially a very simple fencing with brightly colored flags that flap in the breeze. The USDA Wildlife Services and CDFW have even been deploying turbo flattery, which is fladry strung on an electric polywire so it’s actually got a little bit of a charge to it like an electric fence.”
According to Flick, fladry can be effective due to wolves’ tendencies to be wary of novel things like a flapping fence. Over time, however, wolves may become habituated and brave enough to approach the fence and sniff it out of curiosity. But if the fladry is turbo-powered, they would receive a shock on their nose that would act as an effective deterrent.
A second effective tool includes a foxlight, which mimics the presence of a human out searching a field with a flashlight.
“The newer foxlights are actually solar panel powered, but they have older ones that have a large battery in them and they go off at night so it just looks like a person’s out checking a field. That tends to deter predators as well because they think that there’s a human out there,” said Flick.
Other methods tend to fall back on standard husbandry practices, like simply being out in the field or range-riding on horseback to ensure none of the animals are injured or sick that would make them more vulnerable to attack.
Flick also points to a relatively new school of thought known as “low-stress livestock handling,” which encourages ranch animals’ to return to their natural herd instincts.
“For domestic cattle in particular, we’ve kind of taken that herding instinct out of them because the way ranching is done these days, especially on public lands, where the animals are encouraged to scatter to try and utilize the forage more evenly and prevent overgrazing of a particular area,” Flick said. “Cow-calf pairs tend to scatter across the landscape and that increases risk, but if they’re encouraged to be more in a herd, there is safety in numbers, so to speak.”
This school of thought is grounded in the idea of reducing opportunities for wolves to attack, which largely occurs when livestock are isolated, weakened, or otherwise vulnerable such as mothers’ calving in an open range. This strategy can also be used in times of drought, when ranchers tend to provide supplemental food resources like hay. By laying the feed in piles and later in the evenings, the herds will tend to gather together and stay grouped overnight, reducing their vulnerability.
Implementing non-lethal mitigation strategies are particularly important considering that gray wolves are still fully protected under the California Endangered Species Act, despite the rollback of protections at the federal level in January 2021.
“It’s really important that ranchers are proactive, especially where we know wolves are on the landscape, to ensure the safety of their herds,” Flick said. “Defenders of Wildlife acknowledges that some livestock producers can be disproportionately impacted [by wolf pack presence] and that’s why we’ve worked to provide these conflict-deterrents to ranchers via our agency partners like CDFW and the USDA Wildlife Services to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts as much as possible.”
While it remains to be seen if a second wolf pack is present in California, local ecosystems will be sure to benefit from the return of this apex predator to its historical habitat and native territory.
“Wolves have this almost trickle down effect on the entire ecosystem,” Flick said. “When wolves were removed from ecosystems like at Yellowstone, the ungulate herds like the elk, moose and deer populations exploded and would overgraze riverside areas, riparian zones and streamside vegetation. This in turn made the slopes of the riverbanks unstable, which added to sedimentation and temperature of the streams so that they were less hospitable to the freshwater fishes that live there, so it just really disrupted the whole system.”
But with the return of wolves to northern California, local ecosystems can expect a healthy rebound much like what was seen after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s.
“There was really a change when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone as ungulate herds became more vigilant, watching for predators and moving around the landscape more so their overgrazing was kept in check and that allowed for the streamside vegetation to be restored,” Flick said. “Shaded creeks and rivers create more songbird habitat and a more-hospitable fish habitat so as a keystone species, it’s really critical that wolves play that role in the ecosystem and we’re just really glad that they have made their return to California to do that.”
Consequently, a collaborative effort between government agencies, conservation groups and local livestock producers will continue to be vital in establishing a safe co-existence between wolves and livestock.
“It’s critically important that we as conservation organizations, like Defenders, work directly with livestock producers because we have more common ground than it might seem just on its face,” Flick said. “We don’t want to see wolves harmed because of livestock and we don’t want to see livestock harmed because of wolves. There has been a great divide for a long time but I personally have worked with a handful of ranchers, livestock producers, who are really trying to come together to find common ground and work together. We just need to continue that important work, especially here in California as wolves just start to make their way back to their historical habitat in the Golden State.”
Scott King writes about technology, science, and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.