Saturday, December 19, 2015

As wolves reappear in California, killing of calf highlights tension

By John King
Friday, December 18, 2015
A calf was likely killed and eaten by wolves in Siskiyou County last month, state wildlife officials said — the first reported case of the endangered predators dining on ranchers’ livestock and an incident that may raise tensions over wolves’ reappearance in California.

The killing of the calf prompted the first “livestock depredation investigation” since a wolf crossed into California from Oregon in 2011, marking the first evidence of a wild wolf in the state since 1924. The apparent attack involved the “Shasta pack,” which consists of two adult wolves and five pups.

The 48-page investigation report — which includes color photos of the two rear legs that were all that remained of the carcass — was released Friday. It comes as the state takes public comments on a comprehensive draft plan for how wolves, which were classified as endangered in California in 2014, might be managed as they multiply.

This is the only pack known to be in California, said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. She stressed that the lethal wolf attack was likely, but not confirmed.

“It’s difficult to say absolutely that the cause of death was wolves, but that’s what we think happened,” Traverso said. “By the time we get on the scenes, there’s not much left to see.”
What is known, the report said, is that on Nov. 10 a rancher rounding up cattle with his workers reported seeing five wolves eat a dead calf in a meadow on the property.

The wolves raced away from the carcass at the approach of humans. The ranch workers gathered their roughly 40 calves and 160 adult cows, but when they returned a half-hour later the carcass was gone. Two hind legs were found amid trees about 100 yards away.

Two state investigators visited the scene the next day. They found bloodied bone fragments at the spot where the wolves and carcass could be seen, as well as wolf scat containing cattle hair nearby.

Howls of recognition

The continuing presence of wolves was confirmed another way: One of the investigators “played a recording of a single wolf howling,” the report said. “Within several seconds, several wolves vocalized from across the meadow.”

For ranchers and their advocates concerned about predatory attacks, the incident last month confirms a larger set of fears about long-term threats to their livestock — and livelihood — from packs of wild animals that can be three times the size of coyotes.

“In every other state where wolves have become established, depredations have become unfortunate and inevitable events,” said Kirk Wilbur, director of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association.

The concern of Wilbur’s organization is that the “endangered” classification means gray wolves cannot be “taken” — a definition that extends beyond killing to other nonlethal actions to chase wolves away.

“We need a strong management plan that allows us to protect our livestock,” Wilbur said, as opposed to such currently allowed procedures as attaching cloth flags to fences on the perimeter of a ranch.
The bones of an adult Hereford also were found by investigators beyond the meadow. It apparently had died two weeks or so earlier — and while there was evidence wolves had dined on the remains, there were also signs that the cow, which wasn’t part of the rancher’s herd, might have died of natural causes.

“If that animal was already dead, scavenging is different” from a predatory attack on cattle within a fenced meadow, Traverso said. “We know that wolves are in Siskiyou County, and we know that they eat.”

Public comments

The probable calf attack last month doesn’t change Fish and Wildlife’s confidence in the draft management plan. Still, Traverso said, “I’m sure (the incident) will come up” in public comments about the plan, which are being accepted until Feb. 15.
 
“When we knew the wolves were back (in California), we also knew there would be a mixed reaction,” Traverso said. “Some people are nervous about livestock. Some people see this as a heroic journey. Both are true.”


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