As Wolves Return to California – Communication with Ranchers a Key to Success

"Roping gray wolf," Cowboys take in a gray wolf on "Round up," in Wyoming in 1887. Gray wolves once roamed North America from Alaska to Mexico, coast to coast, but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service(USFWS), federal eradication efforts, which included bounties paid for dead wolves, brought wolf numbers near extinction by the beginning of the 20th Century - photo: John C. Grabill/Library of Congress

The Beckwourth wolf pack in northern California’s Plumas County was discovered in May of 2021 after reports of a wolf attack on a yearling heifer made their way to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). In a state with only one other active wolf pack—the Lassen pack, also found in northern California—the Beckwourth wolf pack is a notable discovery.

According to CDFW senior environmental scientist Kent Laudon, the Beckwourth wolf pack currently consists of three wolves, with only one of their identities confirmed as a female who dispersed from the Lassen pack. The other two are unknown, but it is likely that one is a male and the other is either their pup or a wolf tagging along with the male and female as a third wheel.

The agency discovered this information through DNA testing of wolf scat collected by field scientists like Laudon. He has studied how wolves move across the western United States and interact with farmers and ranchers for over twenty years.

“A lot of pups, when they reach two or three years of age, will leave the pack. They can travel thousands of miles, and you’ll have a male wolf and female wolf run into each other from different packs on unoccupied wolf territory and breed,” explained Laudon. “That’s how new packs start.”

A Lassen pack pup – photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Since the gray wolf has been deemed recovered and is no longer protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, management of wolf populations is the responsibility of states. In Montana and Idaho, lawmakers have passed laws that enable all but unlimited hunting and trapping of gray wolves. In California, the gray wolf is still protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to kill them.

For many ranchers wolves can be a difficult issue, as the animal is capable of killing heads of livestock, which is a rancher’s livelihood. The stress of dealing with wolf kills or encounters can be particularly draining.

“If you’re someone who prides yourself on the proper care of your animals only to see that animal suffering or its herdmates suffer from the stress that nearby wolf activity can cause, that is likely going to be very emotionally draining as a beef producer,” said Kirk Wilbur, director of government affairs for California Cattlemen’s Association.

With the presence of wolves still a relatively new reality for ranchers in California, no laws have been passed that require producers be compensated for loss of livestock to wolves. The CFDW’s Conservation Plan for Gray Wolves in California was published just five years ago, in 2016, after the first reports of a wolf crossing into California from Oregon were verified (wolf OR-7).

For now, the main effort to halt livestock-wolf conflict is through non-lethal deterrents such as range riders or fladry, which are strips of fabric hung along fence lines that can make a wolf avoid the area. However, according to Wilbur, these efforts can be inaccessible for ranchers.

“These non-lethal deterrents can be prohibitive, whether it be for cost or because of a limited amount of resources. And frankly, if we’re talking about those many thousands of acres of federal land allotments around Lassen National Forest, you really can’t put up non-lethal deterrents around that entire range.” Both the Lassen and Beckwourth wolf packs cross this range.

B. Watkins installs fladry in Plumas County, California – photo: Pamela Flick

The likely intersection of wolves and ranchers means open and regular communication with ranchers about the threat of wolf activity in their area is critical.

“I try to work with local folks on the ground and develop trust and relationships so that we can communicate well with each other,” said CDFW scientist Laudon.

When the Beckwourth pack killed the cow in May 2021, Laudon made calls to residents in neighboring communities to make sure they knew about the incident. Keeping people up-to-date on new information as CDFW gets it is a key step in maintaining these trusting relationships, Laudon has found.

Worth noting, Laudon said the recent Beckwourth Fire, which burned over 100,000 acres in northern California, has not threatened the Beckwourth pack of wolves.

As the agency continues to monitor the pack, they will update residents on where their territory is and how they might be impacted. It is not certain yet whether the pack is reproductive, but it is certain that they will continue to roam throughout northern California.

“The history of wolf recovery in the northwestern United States is marked by wolves being able to meet up and breed,” said Laudon. “The wolf population grows as the number of breeding units increase through time and space.”

According to CDFW, California wolf packs have historically had a home range of approximately 500 square miles. As more packs occur, more areas in the west will see wolf activity, assuming that livable land is still available for them.

“Wolves don’t necessarily increase in densities in a specific area, they go out,” said Laudon. “This means new wolves in new places.”


Claire Carlson grew up in Reno, Nevada, but now splits her time between the desert and the Pacific Northwest. She recently finished a master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana.