Wolf, © Didier J. Lindsey

Now that wolves have returned to California after a nearly 90-year absence, where are they most likely to live? Will their new territories overlap significantly with grazing lands and create conflicts with livestock? What kind of proactive strategies are most feasible for northern California ranchers to implement on their operations to keep both livestock and wolves safe from harm?
These are important questions if we are going to have successful wolf recovery in California. Getting better insight on these questions will help protect both wolves and ranchers by reducing the risk of potential predation by wolves on livestock, and thereby reducing conflicts.

Shasta Pack pups, © Defenders of Wildlife

A dynamic duo reunites: Defenders and the Bren School
To help us answer these questions, we partnered with the UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The Bren School focuses on finding science-based solutions to environmental problems, and has a well-earned reputation as one of the top schools of its kind in the nation. The Bren Master’s Program challenges students to use real world scenarios to solve environmental problems faced by an actual client that has a real interest in the outcome. This is the second time Defenders’ California Program has worked with the Bren School. Our first Bren School project focused on identifying areas for solar energy development in the San Joaquin Valley in a way that avoids or minimizes adverse impacts to wildlife, habitat and high-resource value agricultural lands. We truly enjoyed our partnership with Bren and were so pleased with the professional-level results that we jumped at the opportunity to work with them again.

Bren Students, AKA “Los Lobos” Map Conflict Hotspots
Our wolf proposal to Bren was accepted by a five-member group of graduate students that promptly dubbed themselves Los Lobos. Their overarching project goal was to help ranchers and livestock producers in northern California reduce the likelihood of conflicts with wolves. Their key objectives were to:
  • Analyze current or potential livestock grazing areas, and overlap those with areas where experts believe gray wolves will live, in order to map out where wolf-livestock conflict could most likely happen.
  • Recommend proactive strategies for livestock producers in northern California to use to reduce conflicts between livestock and wolves.
To complete the first project objective, Los Lobos identified potentially suitable wolf habitat using three separate models that looked at many different variables that can make an area good or bad habitat for wolves. These included things like how much forest cover there is, how much prey is available, how many humans live nearby, who owns the land, and how many roads cut through the area.

Los Lobos found that prey density and forest cover ended up being the most important factors. Once they mapped predicted wolf habitat, the team overlaid a map of grazing lands statewide to identify potential conflict hotspots:
Potential Conflict Hotspot Map, © Defenders of Wildlife
Survey Says…
The team then developed and distributed a survey to livestock producers in seven northern California counties closest to the Oregon border where California’s wolves are most likely to originate: Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, Siskiyou, Shasta, Modoc and Lassen. These counties were also selected because agriculture, especially livestock production, makes up a large part of their economies. The survey was designed to collect information on general attitudes towards wolves in the area, and get a feel for how open livestock producers might be to taking new, proactive measures to reduce potential conflicts with wolves. It asked about specific tools and strategies that could work in the area, including special fencing, alarms and scare devices, livestock guardian dogs, changing timing and/or location of grazing or birthing season of young, increasing human presence with range riders, and removing attractants like injured or sick cattle and carcasses.
Range Rider monitoring cattle and wolf activity in Wallowa County, © Diana Hunter
And the results were…California can be wolf-friendly!
The team’s model predicted more than 50,000 square kilometers (or 19,305 square miles) of potential suitable wolf habitat in California. This habitat is primarily found on forested lands in the northwestern part of the state from the Oregon border south through Mendocino County, southern Cascades and portions of the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Since livestock grazing occurs in much of northern California on both private and public lands, there is extensive overlap between predicted wolf habitat and grazing lands. Lands in western Siskiyou and Shasta counties, eastern Humboldt County, much of Trinity County, the southern Cascades and northern Sierra foothills all include potential conflict hotspots.

Simple solutions can make a big difference. Removing attractants and using range riders across the vast rangelands in northern California ranked high on the list of the most preferred and feasible options for avoiding conflicts between wolves and livestock. One way to encourage more producers to take on these methods is through cost-sharing programs, which Defenders and other conservation groups have done successfully in other states.

It’s worth noting that all seven strategies listed in the survey are effectively being used by at least some livestock producers in northern California in an effort to protect their livestock from wolves and other predators. And that’s why Defenders continues to work with northern California ranchers. As wolves continue to return to this landscape, we’ll help livestock producers test different tools and strategies to determine the best way to keep their livestock and California’s wolves safe.