After a century, gray wolves return to California. Local ranchers aren’t thrilled

A young male in Lassen County, California, wears a collar that transmits his location. He was in a litter of four pups born in the area in 2019. Photo by Morgan Heim/Smithsonian Magazine

The last gray wolf in California was killed nearly a century ago, ridding the state of one of its natural predators. But in 2015, a female wolf was spotted in Lassen County near the northeast corner of the state. She likely traveled hundreds of miles to get there. She’s also given birth to a few litters. Now the two animals are revitalizing California’s gray wolf population. 

At its peak, the pack was composed of 15 wolves, according to Richard Grant, who wrote about this for the Smithsonian Magazine.

For environmentalists, the return of the gray wolf is a cause for celebration. 

“Wolves were native to California originally. They were there for about 17,000 years, and then they got wiped out in the 19th century,” Grant says. “This latest wave of wolves … the federal government introduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the 1990s.”

But Grant says Lassen County ranchers are not thrilled. That’s due in part to the danger the wolves pose to local livestock. 

“I think that's what most ranchers would like to do: to be able to, if you see a wolf eating one of your calves, to reach for the rifle. But that's a criminal act in California,” he says. 

Although the gray wolf was removed from the list of federal endangered species in 2020, it is still protected in California under the Endangered Species Act. The maximum penalty for the killing, shooting, injuring, or taking of wolves is one year in jail and a $100,000 fine. 

“Wolves have a way of inflaming people's emotions. They tend to get either romanticized, often by people in the cities, or they tend to get demonized as these bloodthirsty, slobbering killers that will snatch your baby out of a crib.”

He adds that wolves are typically scavengers.

“One cause of these misunderstandings between ranchers and wolf biologists is that they see a wolf track by a dead cow, they assume that the wolves actually killed that cow. Whereas the more common scenario is that a cow will die of disease, and the wolves will come in and scavenge it.”

Ideally, Grant says ranchers would want the right to protect their livestock. But realistically, he says they’re asking for a government compensation program that would reimburse them for the cost livestock killed by a wolf.