The gray wolf known as OR7 has spent the past week in western Plumas and northeastern Butte counties. The one exception was June 22 when he wandered into eastern Tehama County. OR7 has traveled more than 2,500 miles since leaving his pack in the far northeastern corner of Oregon in December last year. He has traveled as much as 40 air miles in a single day. He has traversed back and forth through two states and several counties. But for the past month OR7 has limited his travels to a much smaller area in Butte and Plumas counties.
Does this mean he is taking up residence locally? Nobody knows the answer to that question. Did he possibly find another wolf, a potential mate perhaps, whose presence in the area was not known about? Not likely, but nobody can say for sure. Wolves are, after all, very reclusive. A lone wolf can wander a very long time over a very wide area before settling in a particular territory.
We know that wolves inhabited some parts of California in the past. And we know there is a possibility that populations in nearby states could eventually lead to wolves returning and establishing packs in California. So what would that look like? How will the wolf fit into the 21st century California landscape?
First and foremost the wolf is a predator: a top of the food chain sort of predator.
Wolves in North America are found mostly in forested areas or the tundra of the far north. Gray wolves are sometimes referred to as timber wolves because of they often live in forested areas. Biologists believe that wolves can adapt to a wide variety of habitats as long as two primary needs are met: room to roam in wild undeveloped territory and an adequate prey base.
Wolves will feed on a wide variety of large and small animals. Deer would likely to be a favorite food item in California. Wolves often select animals that are weak from old age or sickness, but they will also feed on younger animals. Livestock, unfortunately, is also a frequent food source.
Wolves are most effective feeding in packs. A lone wolf will have to work much harder for a meal.
Wolves compete with other predators. Populations of mountain lions and coyotes have declined in areas wolves have returned to. There have been some conflicts between bears and wolves, but generally bears are very opportunistic feeders and bears and wolves tend to coexist by avoiding one another.
What about people? Wolves go out of their way to avoid humans. The last report of someone being killed by a wild wolf in the continental United States was clear back in 1888. Two more recent wolf incidents (1978 and 1989) were attacks by wolves being kept as pets. A jogger in a small Alaskan village was believed to have been attacked and killed by a pack of wolves in 2010.
Even without direct attacks on people, the wolf would not be welcomed by many. Some people are fascinated by the presence of the wolf. On the other hand many people are not at all anxious to see wolves return to our area. Ranchers in particular have a very real concern about the potential economic impact of wolves feeding on livestock.
Human and wolf interactions have a long and complicated history. How, and if, that interaction will play out locally remains to be seen.
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