We like to think “extinction” is something that happens to dinosaurs and exotic plant species, and not animals that roam across our own country. But this mentality has been put into question in recent years as U.S.-born animals have been added to the list of endangered species. And as time goes by, the list just keeps growing.
Renewing a threatened animal population is no easy task, and it’s rare for population levels to return to the way they were. This is especially true in the case of the California Gray Wolf, whose population has dwindled into the low thousands. All California environmentalists can hope for is enough time, enough resources, and a little luck…
If you were hiking through a remote part of California a few years ago, you probably would have been warned about grizzly bears. The chances of coming face to face with many other potentially dangerous animals didn’t seem very likely…
In fact, coming across an actual wolf sounds fairly far fetched to a regular tourist or hiker. In the early 1920s, though, this was a different story. Back then, wolves prowled California’s remote forests and farms alike.
Because of this, farmers and wolves were constantly at odds. Farmers often hunted wolves in hopes of avoiding a barnyard massacre. They couldn’t have known then the damage they were inflicting, and not just on the wolves.
In 1924, the very last gray wolf was killed. For the next 90 years, California didn’t have any wolves in an area that could support up to 500 of them. Unbeknownst to farmers, the species’ absence shifted the balance of the ecosystems they used to inhabit.
“Wolves keep [elk and deer] in check, which helps vegetation not get overeaten. That vegetation provides nesting habitat for migrating birds and building material for beavers, which create ponds for frogs and fish,” said biologist Amaroq Weiss. And this domino effect was not only noticed by biologists.
See, if something good came out of the mass wolf killings in the ‘20s, it’s that the negative effects alerted researchers nationwide to the dwindling population of gray wolves. So in 1975, the gray wolf received federal endangered species protections…but there weren’t any wolves left to protect.
That is, until 2011, when one lone gray wolf wandered into Siskiyou County from Oregon. Biologists were stunned by this sudden re-emergence. Without a pack to lead or to protect him, this endangered wolf had traveled into an entirely new state — and immediately became an icon.
Though biologists designated him OR-7, activists named him “Journey” in honor of his daring cross-state trek. A GPS collar tracked and recorded his personal hike…as well as his encounters with other animals.
According to his GPS collar, Journey found a mate — likely another migrated wolf — and added five pups to the state’s gray wolf population. He then migrated back to Oregon and fathered more pups. It seemed like those were the last wild wolf pups California would ever see.
It was believed that, as of 2015, the population of wild gray wolves in California was an alarmingly small seven. Since two of the seven wolves were wearing GPS collars, biologists thought that enough of the state’s wolves were being tracked…
So imagine biologists’ shock when, in 2019, two adult wolves were seen caring for three young pups in California. Biologists had no idea these wolves were even there, let alone that they were having pups. Even more unexpected was the way biologists discovered the pack.
The pack was seen hunting and resting on a trail camera in a remote part of Lassen County. The three pups snacked on grass and howled at each other before passing through. Though it only lasts a minute, this footage created a huge stir in the environmental community.
“Having wolves return to California is one of the most significant environmental developments in conservation in this state,” Weiss asserted. This sounds like triumphant news for conservationists and activists everywhere, but some people are far from happy about the wolves’ return.
Farmers and hunters have always tried to subdue the wolf population in California in order to protect their valuable sheep and cattle, and this didn’t change when California’s Fish and Game Commission granted gray wolves special protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act in 2014.
Now that the population seems to be slowly ratcheting upwards, farmers are once again in fear of their livestock being hunted. When California’s Farm Bureau Federation took the matter to court, the fate of the wolves was put into jeopardy.
Farmers weren’t the only group threatening California’s wolf population, either. The federal government, too, pushed to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, meaning they would no longer benefit from federal protection. Everything, it seemed, would all come down to the lawsuit.
In the end, the consensus among the scientific community and the court was clear: no matter what happened at a federal level, California’s gray wolves would be protected under state law. In a perfect world, this would keep the gray wolves safe from hunters…
“If they’re coming from the Oregon side of the border or from Nevada, once they set a paw down in California they are protected,” Weiss said. But these idealistic words would not become a reality anytime soon.
Late last year, a California-born wolf pack mysteriously vanished in remote Siskiyou County. Since biologists weren’t able to collar any pack members, they may never know what happened to the pack. What’s more, they’re not the only mystery to plague California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They’re also investigating the death of a young wolf that was mysteriously killed in Modoc County. It was handled as a criminal investigation, and the police warned the public that killing a wolf is a potential crime punishable with imprisonment.
These tragic events only make the recent pack sighting on the trail camera all the more inspiring. Despite the resistance from the farming community, biologists remain hopeful that the wolves will one day lead many wild packs across California and beyond.
Anyone doubting the importance of wolves need look no further than Yellowstone National Park. In the ’80s and early ’90s, the beautiful scenery was completely ravaged. And it was all thanks to the wolves — or lack thereof.
See, as mentioned, before 1926, Yellowstone National Park was full of wolves. They thrived there, but within the first few decades of the 1900s, government predator control programs wiped them out entirely. This was a problem.
No one saw another wolf until 1977 — about 50 years later — but, even then, it was a lone wolf or two merely wandering through. Oddly, it was the lack of these wolves that led to the park’s decline.
With no predators to fear, the deer population absolutely exploded. They could eat and overgraze all they wanted without worrying about wolves. Soon, the forests and meadows were barren, but the deer and their ilk kept at it.
As the deer kept grazing, taking all the resources for themselves, the other animals suffered. Creatures that dined on fauna stood no chance in the food race against deer. Animals that ate those animals saw their food supply dwindle.
And the rapid loss of vegetation didn’t just leave the forests bare. Without vegetation keeping soil in place, the rivers that ran through Yellowstone began eroding, which prompted the loss of many animal species who relied on healthy waters to survive.
Yellowstone was struggling, and park employees needed to find a solution. It really all boiled down to the high numbers of deer, they knew, so, in 1995, they hatched a plan.
The deer needed predators, plain and simple, and workers figured this would be the perfect time to reintroduce wolves back into Yellowstone. Packs of gray wolves were released into the park, and hopeful employees prayed it was the answer.
Now, the deer were suddenly thrust back into the predator versus prey world, and even though there were far fewer wolves than deer, the wolves were fearsome hunters. They welcomed the challenge.
Day and night, the battle ensued, and the wolves were the victors nearly every time. This relationship between the wolves and deer is known as “top-down control.”
Top-down control is when predators who sit atop the food chain assist with the regulation of the animals who are beneath them. That’s exactly what happened when the wolves were reintroduced. With deer numbers dwindling, the vegetation flourished.
Aspen and willow trees that hadn’t seen a successful life for decades finally grew back tenfold, and it seemed they were healthier than ever. But, the trees were just the very beginning of the massive change.
The waterways running through the parks began changing, and the regenerated vegetation growing on the riverbeds brought with it a whole new array of life not seen in such a long time.
For the first time in forever, beavers returned to the water. They began constructing their intricate dams, which contributed to a habitat that attracted a variety of reptiles, otters, and muskrats.
Because of the increased vegetation, mice and rabbits thrived, which, in turn, gave the red fox an amazing feasting opportunity. Red fox numbers grew, and still, there was even more happening.
The number of bears also increased. The deer had scoured bushes and ate the same berries the bears enjoyed, but with the berries now finally plentiful again, the bears could eat without a problem.
Through it all, the wolves gained a feathery friend! Ravens are known to follow behind wolves and pick at the remains of whatever they hunt and kill. The four-legged assassins were hard at work, and those ravens were always close behind.
The new lush vegetation not only benefited all of the animals, but it helped drastically slow down, and sometimes completely stop, the erosion of riverbeds. The changes were nothing short of miraculous.
Incredibly, the wolves, although nowhere near as abundant in numbers as the deer they hunted, managed to not only change the ecosystem but the physical geography of Yellowstone National Park. It was a feat that had every park employee — and wolf — howling with joyous pride.
What’s most shocking about this development was how few wolves it took to really change Yellowstone for the better. Still, this reflects a human truth: it only takes a handful of people to make a huge difference.