California had been expecting a return of gray wolves since a lone male with a radio collar named OR7 wandered in from Oregon four years ago, and then wandered back. But the discovery of seven other wolves in southern Siskiyou County this month — two adults and five pups that show every intention of staying — caught the state by surprise and a little underprepared.
It's been more than 90 years since California had a single wild wolf residing in the state, let alone a pack, thanks to a shameful government-sponsored eradication effort that also did in the state's grizzly bears.
The return of the northern gray wolf is a welcome sign of nature's ability — and man's — to change and adapt. People once prided themselves on shoving nature aside to make way for civilization; now, more of us pride ourselves on having the brains to undo our mistakes. The gray wolf's remarkable success has cheered wildlife biologists: Not only have its numbers increased, but it has expanded its territory by finding its niche in a much-changed environment. That means, barring further stupid actions by mankind, it should be able to thrive on its own and play a helpful environmental role as a natural predator.
The gray wolf joins a list of environmental successes. The quick return of healthier fish populations in California's coastal waters after catch limits for fishing boats were established. The cleanup of polluted rivers nationwide. Significant progress toward reducing air pollution in the L.A. area. The environment can show remarkable resilience when policy makers move swiftly and decisively.
Of course, not all such efforts have been successful. Species in general are more likely to be disappearing today than to be staging comebacks. And at this point, it's hard to know whether we will do enough, quickly enough, to prevent disaster from the environmental worry that eclipses all others: climate change.
Today, though, is for celebrating. California finally has its own gray wolf pack, not by reintroduction into a hostile environment, but by natural expansion into wild territory.
For now, the California wolves are protected by federal law from hunters, who face a $10,000 fine for any violations. But still, the state has been moving too slowly on a comprehensive wolf-management plan, which it's known would be needed ever since OR7 came and went, including a compensation system for ranchers who might lose livestock to wolves. Wildlife officials need to speed up their game to protect this little pack that represents so many big hopes.