The male wolf that has made his home in California has caught the imagination of the golden state.
He has been welcomed with far more hospitality that those leaving Yellowstone National Park and walking into Montana and Wyoming these days. The hunting seasons there this year have brought national ire since collared wolves, including a alpha female, known as 832F, called “beloved,” a “rock star” and “the most famous wolf in the world.”
Montana shut down its wolf season north of the park because so many collared wolves had been killed. Then in the new year, a state judge ordered hunting to resume after sporting groups sued.
To a world of wildlife lovers the idea that a single wolf would be killed is outrageous. A clash of cultures is inevitable.
There is little controversy surrounding the California wolf, known as OR7. Born of parents that were raised in Idaho, he’s healthy, he’s stayed out of trouble and he continues his lonely search for a mate.
His story is much like the story of wolves in Idaho in the 1970s and 1980s. Canada had reduced its seasons on wolves in the 1960s and the wolf population grew, sending out dispersing wolves into Idaho and Montana.
Montana set up a project to study the wolves that had moved in there headed by Robert Ream, now a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner. Idaho ignored them.
In 1978, a hunter shot a wolf near Warm Lake east of Cascade on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Researchers in 1984 compiled 600 unconfirmed reports of wolves in Idaho between 1974 and 1983.
They classified 238 of these reports as probably and estimated that no more than 15 wolve were living in central Idaho during that period. Like the California wolf, these wolves were neither getting in trouble nor establishing packs.
To paraphrase a wolf activist talking about the California wolf in an L.A. Times story last week, they were the Lewis and Clark of Idaho wolves. Next store in Montana wolves were establishing packs in Glacier National Park and surrounding national forests.
By the end of the 1980s they also were beginning to get into trouble, killing livestock. When packs were forming in Idaho they were quickly poisoned or shot.
The slow pace of natural recovery convinced scientists and activists that reintroduction of wolves was necessary to get the populations kick started.
No one expected the population explosion that came after wolves were reintroduced in 1995. The goal of 10 packs in each of three states was reached in seven years and especially in Idaho, the population ballooned. There were more than 750 wolves in Idaho and more than 1,500 in the region at the peak.
The growth of the wolf population outpaced any reasonable expectation for social acceptance and political support, especially in states that had rejected them in the first place. So now the wolf populations are recovered but the political and social systems of the West are only beginning to settle into the new reality.
California has time right now to begin its process for adjusting to its new migrant population. It wants to think it will be more accepting since it has cultural values more like those in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But even those state are also going through a rude adjustment to the reality of recovered wolves.
How will California’s rural communities react 20 years from now to rapidly expanding wolf numbers in their back yards?