Wolves on the West Coast
Wolves were once common along the West Coast, from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state through Oregon to the far reaches of Southern California. As keystone predators wolves are vital for regulating prey populations like deer and elk, helping many other species. Scientists believe that wolves’ natural hunting practices may also help stop the spread of disease in these wild ungulates.
Decades of extermination programs to appease the livestock industry drove wolves out of West Coast states in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The last wild wolf was documented in California in 1924, when it was shot in Lassen County. The last breeding wolves in Washington were eliminated in the 1930s, and in Oregon the last wolf was killed for a bounty in 1947.
Today the West Coast is a region crucial to wolf recovery. As wolf populations have expanded in the northern Rocky Mountains, the animals have moved west. As these populations reach new areas, they need state and federal protection so they aren't exterminated again. In fact, when a wild wolf called OR-7, or “Journey,” reached California in late 2011, some county commissioners said wolves should be shot on sight — even vowing to do it themselves.
That's why the Center and allies petitioned California to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act and, in June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to grant our petition. Those protections were extremely timely because only one year later, California's first known wolf family, the Shasta pack, was confirmed in the state, and in the following years, three more California packs have been confirmed.
But there's still so much work to do for West Coast wolves. Although wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes have met with success, wolves in the lower 48 states still occupy less than 15% of their historic habitat. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections for wolves across nearly the entire lower 48 states, including the West Coast, in January 2021. The Center and allies successfully challenged this delisting in court, winning back federal protections in February 2022 — but we’re staying vigilant. If the United States is going to continue recovering its wolf population, it needs the West Coast — one of the best places for wolf recovery, with plenty of suitable wolf habitat and a largely supportive human population.As a founding member of the Pacific Wolf Coalition, among other wolf-related West Coast alliances, the Center is working with conservation groups across the region to make sure wolves have needed protection at the state and federal levels.
The first reliable reports of wolves returning to Washington came in 2002. By the end of 2021, Washington had 206 confirmed wolves with 33 packs, 19 of which had successful breeding pairs. Nearly all Washington’s wolves live in the eastern and central portions of the state. Wolves in the eastern third of the state are managed by the state wildlife agency. Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are comanaged by the state and federal wildlife agencies. Wolves on Tribal lands are managed by the pertinent Tribes.
Scientists have identified several additional wild areas in Washington where wolves could live, including the Olympic Peninsula. To date no wolf packs occupy western Washington, though a pair of wolves was confirmed there in spring 2022.
In 2011 Congress stripped federal protection from wolves in the eastern third of the state. In early 2021, wolves lost federal protections everywhere else in the state, but a successful court challenge by the Center and allies saw those protections restored in early 2022. All Washington’s wolves remain protected under the state's endangered species act, but the state Act isn’t nearly as protective and allows wolves to be killed for conflicts with livestock. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a wolf-management plan in 2011, and even though wolf recovery is still in its infancy, the state wildlife agency has begun steps to prepare a revised plan for when wolves are state-delisted.
The Center has taken strong action in state court to block attempts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to kill wolves in response to conflicts with livestock, and to shine a light on “management” actions that are counter to best available science, which concludes that killing wolves to stop conflicts is counterproductive. Repeated agency wolf-killing in Washington is costly and out of step with most residents, who favor coexisting with wolves and have expressed their outrage over the state wildlife agency’s regressive wolf management policies and actions.
We continue to push the state to adopt enforceable, transparent regulations for wolf recovery and conservation. In 2020 an administrative petition we filed with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission urging adoption of such regulations was denied, but our appeal of the denial was granted by Gov. Inslee. The governor directed the Commission and state wildlife agency to draft and adopt regulations to ensure accountability by the state wildlife agency and livestock operators to prioritize and properly implement nonlethal conflict-prevention methods, so killing wolves for livestock conflicts is a measure of last resort. That process is now underway, but we’ll probably need continued public pressure to ensure the regulatory language is sufficient.The Center continues to monitor and challenge Washington wildlife agency actions which are based on politics rather than on science and what’s best for wolves.
Wolves started returning to Oregon in 1999, with its first pack established in 2008. By the end of 2021, a total of 175 wolves in 21 packs with 16 breeding pairs were confirmed. All but two of the packs are in Oregon’s eastern wolf-management zone.
In 2014 agency staff announced that the wolf known as OR-7 — who made California part of his range for more than two years but then returned to Oregon — had found a mate and sired pups in southwestern Oregon, becoming the first known wolf family in western Oregon in nearly 70 years. Officially named the Rogue pack, OR-7 and his mate OR-94 had pups each year from 2014 to 2018, and at least four of those pups made their way into California, too. OR-7 has not been seen since fall 2019 and is presumed dead and in early 2021 his longtime mate was found dead of natural causes. This wolf family did retain other breeding animals, though, and still counted as a pack in 2021. Two additional wolf families have been confirmed in western Oregon: the White River wolves and the Indigo pack. Yet wolves are still at very low numbers and remain absent from nearly 90 percent of suitable wolf habitat in the state.
Congress stripped wolves of their federal Endangered Species Act protection in the eastern third of Oregon in 2011 and in early 2021, wolves lost federal protections in the rest of the state. Thankfully, federal protections in the western two-thirds of the state were restored in early 2022, due to our court challenge. In November 2015 the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission prematurely stripped wolves of state endangered species act protections, and in 2019 the commission approved revisions to the state wolf plan, which unfortunately set the bar low for when wolves can be killed for conflicts with livestock and which opened the door to hunting and trapping of wolves.
Over the years the Center and allies have defeated anti-wolf bills in the state legislature and have legally challenged the state for improper actions. A 2011 lawsuit we filed with allies challenged the state for rushing to kill wolves in violation of the state’s wolf plan; this resulted in a court injunction blocking the killing of wolves for livestock conflicts. During the several years the lawsuit was pending, the wolf population nearly doubled and livestock–wolf conflicts declined as the agency and ranchers were forced to use nonlethal conflict-deterrence measures. Following our lawsuit wolves had stronger protections in Oregon. The state’s delisting of wolves and revisions to its wolf plan are unfortunate steps backward — attempts to appease ranching and hunting groups that would prefer to stop Oregon's wolf recovery in its tracks. The state took the extreme step in 2021 of killing eight members of the 11-member Lookout Mountain pack for livestock conflicts, though there’s no scientific evidence that killing wolves stops those conflicts. In this case, the state even killed several months-old pups who were too young to hunt.
Scientific research shows that when agencies kill wolves or allow members of the public to hunt or trap wolves, illegal killing of wolves increases. Oregon provided a tragic example of this phenomenon in 2021, when eight wolves from three different packs were found dead of poisoning in Union County. Reward offers from the Center and other conservation groups have reached nearly $50,000. Three additional wolves have been found illegally killed in the first few months of 2022.As long as the agency kills wolves for livestock conflicts — signaling wolves aren’t worthy of protections — we fear there will be more illegal killings and are urging the state to improve its anti-poaching efforts. The Center and allies continue to push back against agency wolf-killing to resolve conflicts, and we keep fighting for their full recovery in the state and regionwide.
Gray wolves started their return to California in December 2011, when wolf OR-7 — a 2 ½ -year-old radio-collared wolf from Oregon — crossed into California. He became the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in 87 years. After nearly 15 months exploring seven different Northern California counties, he traveled back to Oregon in March 2013 but returned to California several more times that year and the next, clearly including California in his range. Overall, he traveled 4,000-plus miles, earning the nickname “Journey.”
To protect OR-7 and any wolves who might follow him, two months after he entered California the Center and allies petitioned to grant wolves state Endangered Species Act safeguards — which petitioners won in 2014 after an extensive public process. That same date, agency officials confirmed that OR-7 and a mate had denned in southern Oregon and produced puppies. Though OR-7 and his mate stayed in Oregon, where they became known as the Rogue Pack, they had more pups annually for the next four years, at least four of whom have entered California.
The next step for wolf recovery in California came in August 2015 when, for the first time in at least 100 years, biologists documented a wolf family in Siskiyou County. Named the Shasta pack by state agency staff, the all-black wolf family consisted of one breeding pair and its five pups. Unfortunately — implicated in livestock conflicts — just months later the pack disappeared. One Shasta pup was seen in Nevada afterward, but nobody knows his current whereabouts and many fear the pack was illegally killed.
Between 2015 and 2021, multiple other Oregon wolves entered California. Some returned home to Oregon while others remained in California, including one of OR-7’s 2014 offspring. This young male met a female wolf who’d wandered into California from the northern Rockies. They formed the Lassen pack, with territory spanning Lassen and Plumas counties, and had pups in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The original breeding male disappeared, but a new male joined the pack and had pups in 2020 with both the original female and one of her teenage daughters. Since then, the original breeding female has also disappeared, but her daughter and the new male continued to lead the pack, having pups again in 2021.
Another OR-7 pup from his 2014 litter was seen in California in early 2017 but not since. OR-7’s third known offspring to come to California was a radio-collared nearly-2-year-old female known as OR-54, who arrived in January 2018 and covered almost 9,000 miles in Northern California for nearly two years before, tragically, she was found dead. In late 2020, a fourth offspring of OR-7 came to California, where she met a dispersing male from another Oregon pack. The two have paired up to form the Whaleback pack in Siskiyou County and had their first litter of pups in 2021. Another new pack, the Beckwourth pack, was formed in Plumas County in spring of 2021. Its three members include a female from the Lassen pack. OR-7’s legacy in California lives on.
It’s great that California now has three wolf packs — but the state has seen wolf tragedies, too. In late 2018 a newly arriving wolf from Oregon, OR-59, was found illegally killed in Modoc County less than a week after his arrival. His killing is under state investigation, as is the untimely death of OR-54. The spring of 2021 brought both elation and heartbreak with the arrival of OR-93. This young male wolf from Oregon’s White River pack came to California in early 2021, traveled as far south as Yosemite, and then crossed the Central Valley to become the first wolf documented in California’s south-central coast in 200 or 300 years. Sadly, in November 2021, he was struck and killed by a vehicle near Interstate 5. His story enthralled people around the globe, and his death highlighted how crucial it is to build wildlife crossings that help keep wildlife safe while they’re traversing crucial dispersal corridors.
In 2016 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released its Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, crafted over two years with a stakeholder advisory group, public input and scientific peer review. Some aspects of the plan provide strong protections for wolves, while others fall far short. In summer 2021 the state legislature allocated funding to provide compensation for livestock killed or injured by wolves, and to provide funding to help livestock owners proactively use nonlethal methods and tools to prevent conflicts between livestock and wolves. The Center has participated in stakeholder group discussions in 2021-2022 regarding guidelines for this compensation and proactive measures fund.
The Center continues to advocate for coexistence with wolves, and we'll never stop fighting for their full protection and recovery.