When the wolf OR-7 crossed the state line in 2011, he became the first wolf to visit California in over 90 years. He represented hope for a future of California being able to welcome back a native species; this was truly something to celebrate. He eventually returned to Oregon to raise his family, leaving most to think that wolves taking up residence full-time in California was still years away.
Yet the photos released yesterday by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife of five wolf pups and their parents frolicking in California’s Siskiyou County, not far from Mount Shasta, showed that the wolves had a quicker time frame in mind.
“This news is exciting for California,” said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state and it appears now is the time.”
My upcoming book, When Mountain Lions are Neighbors: Wildlife in Today’s California, features a chapter on the return of the wolf to California and recounts OR-7’s remarkable journey. Here’s a special excerpt preview to celebrate California’s first wolf pack in almost a century. Welcome home, Shasta Pack!
What does California remember of wolves?
Do the tule elk, scattered remnants of the wild herds once roaming California in the hundreds of thousands, recall the wolf packs that gave chase across the wide grasslands of the Central Valley? When the elk trot stiffly, arching their necks and holding their heads high, are they putting on a confident display for a predator long vanished? Do they still have a warning call reserved for wolves, unused for generations? Would they shiver if they heard a howl carried over the hills by the wind? Or have elk forgotten that haunting song?
Does the condor, itself nearly vanished into legend, imagine wolves loping on the hillsides as it soars overhead, its magnificent wings casting moving shadows on the land like clouds do? As it glides on the rising thermals of air scouting for carrion, does it remember the bounty wolves brought to its kind, when it could follow the hunt from above, watching the wolves conquer an elk or deer and be assured of the leftovers? Does each generation of condor pass along renewed hope of finding a wolf in their travels?
Do the coyotes, now the dominant canine in all corners of California, celebrate the banishment of its one-time nemesis—the wolf no longer being around to keep it in check has assured its recent reign. Does the coyote remember a time when it had to abandon a carcass when wolves appeared, dashing away at full speed, when the price of a meal in wolf territory could mean death?
Do the timid kit foxes, suffering from the unrestricted harassment of the coyote, long for a time when the wolves return to end the unbalanced regime? Do the wise and long-lived ravens, as they feast on a road kill brush rabbit or the half eaten remains of a hamburger bun, remember a time of plenty when they led wolves to the elk herds and were rewarded with rich scraps from their kills?
And do the willows and cottonwoods and oaks snuggled by the riverbeds or the grasses and wildflowers coloring the meadows in spring or the blackbird feasting at the elderberry tree or the red-legged frog resting in a vernal pool retain a collective memory of an almost forgotten world shaped by wolves?
Do wolves remember California?
Do they remember the bellowing of the tule elk resonating across an almost limitless playground of the San Joaquin Valley, where they could lope for miles over the rippled hills and rest in the shade of the riparian oak woodlands? Do they remember hunting under the watch of the tall redwood forests, or splashing about in the marshes near the shores of the San Francisco Bay, relishing the abundance of prey in this bountiful land, thick with herds of pronghorn, elk, and deer? Do they remember the moonlight glinting on the polished granite of Sierra Nevada peaks or having to relinquish the hard earned kill of a mule deer to a grizzly in a mountain forest? Do they remember the dense, salty smell of the ocean or the sharp, arid air of the desert?
Whether the wolves have forgotten the scent of the Golden State or the condors and coyotes and elk of California have forgotten the music of the wolf, it doesn’t matter. A landscape is regaining its memory.
The wolf has returned.