After nearly 100 years, wolves are back in California -- and they're hungry

A headline in the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle catches the eye of a visiting Alaskan: "Wolves feed on calf."

In a Dec. 20 story, Chronicle reporter John King reported that wolves were likely responsible for killing and eating a young cow from a rancher's herd in Northern California. It is the first reported wolf kill on California livestock since the 1920s. That was the last time people saw wolves in California.

Biologists for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated the scene in Siskiyou County after a report from a rancheast month. They found "bloodied bone fragments at the spot where the wolves and carcass could be seen, as well as wolf scat containing cattle hair nearby," King reported. Biologists just released a 48-page report on the suspected wolf kill.

The wolves responsible are part of what biologists have named the Shasta Pack. The seven wolves — two adults and five pups — are the only ones known in California. About 38.8 million people live in the state.

Biologists first confirmed the wolves' appearance in August 2015 when a trail camera they set up captured a shot of the entire Shasta Pack.

"This news is exciting for California," Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a press release that accompanied the photo in August. "We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state and it appears now is the time."

Gray wolves have endangered status in California, meaning people cannot kill them.

"In every other state where wolves have become established, (livestock killing) events have become unfortunate and inevitable events," Kirk Wilbur of the California Cattlemen's Association told Chronicle reporter King after the confirmation that wolves killed the calf. The state is now taking public comments on a draft wolf management plan.

There are only a few museum wolf specimens in California, but biologists think the animals were present in the state until the 1920s. After bounty programs that encouraged hunters and ranchers to kill wolves, most were gone from the Lower 48 by the 1930s. Wolf populations remained strong in Canada and Alaska.

From Canada, wolves started recolonizing northwestern Montana in the mid-1990s. At about the same time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released Canada wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The wolves have multiplied and expanded their ranges since then. Including California, six states in the Lower 48 now have wolves.

The animals seem to prefer public lands without many roads. There are at least 68 gray wolves in Washington and 81 in Oregon. The seven California wolves probably wandered over the border from Oregon.

Alaska has a wolf population of 7,000 to 11,000 animals, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The wolves are present throughout most of the state, less frequently near cities and towns. They are also absent from most large islands, including Kodiak, Chichagof, Baranof and the Aleutians.

Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Used with permission.

Ned Rozell

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.