By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Wild packs of wolves have returned to California after a century. They originated in Yellowstone, Idaho, and Montana before heading to northern California. Wolves are adaptable and even necessary.
Wolves were wiped out from California in the early 1920s. Since that time, the state remained wolf-free until 2011, when roaming wolves began coming and going to and from the northern part of the state. Now, approximately 20 wolves have set up permanent residence in various counties near the California-Oregon state line. In that time, collared wolves have been detected traveling up to 8,700 miles in the area and as far south as just 50 miles north of Los Angeles.
Foxes, coyotes, and wolves all evolved for rapid, long-term pursuit of prey. In his video series Zoology: Understanding the Animal World, Dr. Donald E. Moore III, director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, reveals the incredible world of the canidae family.
The Wolf Pack, Demystified
“While tame wolves—or dogs—have become our best friends, wild wolves have been hated and persecuted because they sometimes hunt farm animals and compete with humans for deer and other game species,” Dr. Moore said. “Wolves really can kill large numbers of domestic animals, but their threats to humans are largely overrated and the stuff of fairy tales.”
Much like dogs, wolves are social animals, according to Dr. Moore. They travel in packs numbering in the common range from five to eight, but as many as two dozen. Wolf packs are large enough to overwhelm bison and moose. He said that the pack is made up of a bonded pair of breeding animals, as well as their dependent offspring and subadults.
“The breeding pair helps to direct the activities of the pack by teaching the junior animals how to hunt and survive, and encouraging good social behavior and bonding among members of the pack,” he said.
Wolves Among Us
According to Dr. Moore, wolves are extremely adaptable. While many animals are restricted to one type of habitat, wolves have been found in deserts, wetlands, and forests. They even made quite a mark after being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s.
“In the 20 years since wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem, this national park went from zero wolves to one of the highest densities of wolves in the world,” he said. “This reintroduction wasn’t just for the benefit of the wolves; it was intended to benefit the entire ecosystem. Wolves are considered a keystone species: they, like other apex predators, help to control their prey species, so [they] have large effects on the environments in which they live.”
When wolves began to disappear from the American West, elk populations surged, expanded, and overtook creek areas, where they ate much of the local vegetation. This removed crucial shade from the area, causing temperatures to rise near the creeks. With hotter temperatures, trout and other cold water fish in the area died out or moved away permanently. This domino effect shows the importance of the fearsome apex predator, and it was proven when the opposite occurrence happened.
“When wolves were returned to the Yellowstone ecosystem, they influenced the numbers, distribution, and behavior of elk and their other prey, and this influenced the other animals living there—which altered the landscape of Yellowstone itself,” Dr. Moore said. “When elk moved away from the creekside to avoid wolves, trees grew back, shading the creeks, cooling the creeks, and the end result was more trout in the cooler waters.”
Not only did more trout return, but researchers have since noticed an uptick in songbirds, birds of prey, and pronghorns.
Although Californians may not wish to share a backyard with them, wolves returning to The Golden State seem to be a good thing overall.