PD Editorial: Celebrate the return of wolves to California

No question, wolves have a reputation problem.

Even after hunters decimated their numbers throughout America almost a century ago, wolves cannot shake their starring role as shady characters in black. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A lone wolf. The wolves of Wall Street.

All bad, bad, bad.

After decades without native wolves in California, a lone wolf crossed from Oregon into Siskiyou County in 2012, and now the first confirmed wolf pack is back. They made a cunning choice.

The re-emergence of wolves is a welcome success story of the Endangered Species Act. Some 2 million of them once lived on this continent, but only a few thousand remain. Yet the oft-maligned wolf is still a hot-button topic pitting hunters and livestock ranchers against conservationists.

The new California wolf pack, known as the Shasta Pack, picked friendly territory, with protection via the state’s endangered species act. Life has not been so friendly elsewhere of late. Oregon just enacted a state law that not only takes the wolf off that state’s endangered species list but limits any court intervention. Hunts in other states have thinned the recently growing ranks.

Congress, meanwhile, has its sights set on the misnamed Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, passed by the House, which would open up hunting of wolves in the Great Lakes region, with likely expansion to the West. It also would tie the hands of courts to intervene.

Yet wolves are blamed for more than their fair share of damage. While wolves do kill livestock and must be managed, the wolf is less of a threat than coyotes and diseases.

The wolf is a native predator able to keep other populations in check, dining on mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and coyotes. Thinning deer herds also benefits forests, allowing them to thrive.

With the number of gray wolves on the upswing in northern states, the Obama administration attempted to remove them from the federal endangered species list, but federal courts eventually overruled that move. The Humane Society reports that during the three years the wolves lacked protection in the Great Lakes region, 1,500 were slaughtered.

Livestock die from disease and weather-related causes more often than from any predator, but ranchers must be protected, too, as the nation allows a species to recover.

That’s why other states and the federal government created funds to help ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. Of course livestock aren’t the only domestic animals at risk. Hunting dogs and pets also come into deadly contact with wolves.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has extensive information online to help residents understand wolves better and stay safe. “Wild wolves generally fear people and rarely pose a threat to human safety,” the website notes. Still, the U.S. has had two fatalities since 2000. Then again, cows kill 20 people per year.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is well prepared to assess risk and properly manage the re-emergence of wolves in the Golden State. It has a good working start on developing a final plan. Now is the time to celebrate the successful return of native creatures that plays an important role in maintaining ecological balance, not look for new opportunities to slaughter them.

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