This week's predator profile was meant to be the mountain lion but as of this writing a gray wolf called OR-93 is trekking along Central California, so I figured it would be a good time to tackle one of California's most recent predators.
Name: Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)
Height: 2.1 ft - 2.7 ft
Legal Status: Protected in the State of California, delisted federally at the time of this writing (April 7th 2021).
Habitat & Range:
Wolves are adaptive animals and can live in a variety of habitats. They usually prefer low human density with more linked habitat. They also prefer low paved road density. The elevation is not a major issue so long as prey is available. Wolf territories can vary greatly and so it is not uncommon to encounter the same pack in meadows/grasslands and then up in pine forests.
In order for a wolf to establish a territory, prey and water must be present and easily accessible. Wolves will den close to water features so it's important for them that the water features are accessible year-round.
Wolves will prey on just about anything but prefer large mammals when available. A wolf pack will hunt elk and deer as their primary source of food in California but across the USA bison and moose will also be hunted. What prey they choose to pursue correlates with the size of the pack with bigger packs targetting moose or bison more frequently. If large mammal prey is not present in an area wolves in the USA are unlikely to settle down and carve a territory.
Photo credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
So far this is the only form of management available to livestock producers in California. Since wolves are a protected species it is still illegal to directly harass the animal however non-lethal tools are not considered harassment.
Wolves respond positively to fladry which is used worldwide to prevent livestock depredation. If Fladry is combined with overnight fencing it can be a very effective deterrent for wolves, however, make sure your fences are high enough to prevent wolves from jumping in.
Noise and light emitters such as fox lights and critter gitters will work temporarily but wolves can get habituated fast if these tools are not rotated out. It is crucial to rotate and combine such machines to prevent habituation.
Livestock dogs are a great tool to use against wolves but unlike felines, you will need a pack of them to ensure they can chase off wolves getting too close. Spiked collars or jackets are great to ensure survivability if wolf-dog conflict ensures.
Other guardian animals such as donkeys and llamas are largely ineffective towards wolves given the wolf's larger size.
Lastly, there are some other ways to prevent depredation such as training livestock to gather and deny the wolf the chase opportunuty rather than run away from a predator. One rancher in California is also trying out scenting techniques which so far seem to work. Check out his video here
It is illegal to shoot wolves in California at the time of this post (April 2021).
Positives and Negatives of wolves on site:
Having a wolf pack around or in your grazing grounds can be a very stressful experience both for livestock producers and livestock however there are some positives. The first one being that wolves will defend their territory. If you manage to condition the local pack and figure out what scares them and what doesn't you can successfully protect livestock from them. They will in turn hopefully defend their territory from other wolves which could be unphased by the strategies you have in place already. Sort of the devil you know situation.
Wolves also keep ungulate populations moving which can be good for grazing livestock since there will be less competition for the same areas of grass.
The negatives of course are fairly obvious with livestock depredation and stressed animals. However existing with wolves is feasible with the right strategies and producers who employ them report very small numbers of depredation and no livestock weight loss. Since wolves are fairly new to California, we have a lot to learn from other states and parts of the world where wolves have been present in the landscape for longer.
I want to take the time and tackle three common misconceptions about wolves in California I see online.
1) Wolves are not introduced here in secret. It takes a long time and a lot of money to keep wolves in pens to ensure they don't try and go back to their territories where they were captured. Instead, wolves are excellent dispersers as the story of OR7 and OR93 show us. They are willing to walk great distances looking for mates and territory so it should come to no surprise that they settled in NE California, especially since southern Oregon had a pack where wolves would disperse from.
2) Wolves present now are not bigger than wolves that were here before. The idea behind Yellowstone wolves and US wolves in general being the larger more aggressive subspecies from Canada is inaccurate. Wolf subspecies came before we had DNA testing and scientists depended on skull and bone variation and size variation. Now with DNA testing we narrowed it down to 5 subspecies but we also found that wolf size tends to adjust according to the prey base. Wolves that spend time hunting moose and bison are likely to produce larger pups and those pups are more likely to survive on account of being bigger and hunting bison more efficiently.
On the other end of that scale wolves chasing deer and elk tend to be smaller. To add to that Bergmann's rule is an observation made that animals tend to get bigger in colder climates and smaller in warmer climates. Hence why the Canadian wolves of the same subspecies are larger than say the gray wolves found in Oregon.
3) Wolves don't hunt for sport. Wolves are opportunistic hunters which will start a hunt if they know they can cache that food for later. But hunting for sport(i.e killing something and not eating it) is not something they do. Mostly because for a wolf, hunting is pretty deadly. They often bring their heads close to an animal's hoof's (because their teeth are their hunting weapon) and its fairly common for wolves in the wild to lose death, suffer broken jaws or even die because an elk kicked them in the head. As such they dont hunt for sport. You can get surplus killings which I explained how they work here.
Wolves in California are rare and unlikely to expand to the whole state but if OR93 has shown us anything is that they can wander. So it is important to start proactive measures sooner than later.
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