California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Gray Wolf (OR-10), Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Gray Wolf (OR-10)
Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Reports

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)

Frequently Asked Questions about Wolves

Are there wolves in California?

A gray wolf (Canis lupus), designated OR7, was radio collared by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in February 2011. Tracking data from the collar indicates that this animal entered California on December 28, 2011. The future movements of this animal are unpredictable. He may remain in California or return to Oregon. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) will continue to monitor his movements. All other recent “wolf” sightings in California, have been found to be something else, such as a coyote, a dog or a hybrid wolf-dog. Despite reports to the contrary, CDFW is not aware of confirmed sightings of other wolves in California.

What else is known about OR7?

When ODFW collared OR7, they also determined age and sex. OR7 is an approximately 2 ½-year-old male. Originally part of the Imnaha wolf pack, he traveled from the northeastern part of Oregon more than 300 miles into California. His behavior, called “dispersal,” is not atypical of a male wolf his age and may be a result of natural competition among the males in the pack, seeking out a mate or better mating status in another pack, or seeking out a new food source if the original pack has over-bred or there is limited amount of prey in the area.

Were there ever wolves in California?

Yes, but their historical abundance and distribution are poorly understood and not verifiable. While there are many anecdotal reports of wolves in California, specimens were rarely preserved. The historical range of the wolf in California most likely included the Sierra Nevada, southern Cascades, Modoc Plateau, Klamath Mountains and perhaps the North Coast Ranges. Observations by early explorers and settlers suggest wolves were also in the Central Valley, the western slope of the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains, and the Coast Ranges of California until the early 1800s. But, because coyotes were often referred to as “wolves” in California and other western states in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is impossible to know whether an animal referred to as a wolf actually was a wolf except for the two museum specimens currently known from California.

What happened to them?

There is no definitive answer. Wolves were likely killed to control predation on other animals. Other factors, including hunting, may also have contributed to their extirpation from California. Studies demonstrate that human activity has a negative impact on wolf populations, particularly where there are roads and traffic.

Where do they live? What do they eat?

Wolves historically occupied diverse habitats in North America, including forests, grasslands, deserts and tundra. Their primary habitat requirements are the presence of adequate water and prey, mainly elk and deer. Wolves will also consume other mammals, birds and reptiles and scavenge carrion.

Is the state or federal government going to re-introduce them, as they have near YellowstoneNational Park?

There are no plans to do so.

Why not?

Wolf reintroduction is a complex management issue. One consideration is feasibility under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Beyond that there are a wide range of opinions whether reintroduction would be in the public interest, whether sufficient habitat and prey exists and who would pay the substantial costs of management and monitoring. These considerations have not been evaluated for California.

What is the legal status of a wolf reaching California?

A: Wolves in the western United States, except for Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, are listed as endangered pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The federal act generally prohibits the harassment, harm, pursuit, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capture, or collection of wolves in California, or the attempt to engage in any such conduct. Wolves are not specifically addressed in the California Fish and Game Code (FGC). They would be considered non-game mammals, the taking of which is prohibited by state law except under limited circumstances.

If wolves become established in California, what will CDFW do about it? Will they be regulated, hunted or protected?

CDFW will coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), public land managers and USDA Wildlife Services to monitor wolf sightings and plan to work collaboratively with USFWS to manage wolves in California. Rather than “reinvent the wheel,” CDFW would confer with ODFW and other western state wildlife agencies to discuss their processes for developing wolf management plans. State laws would need to be modified to provide specific status/protection/management language for wolves. Of course, since all of this will cost staff time and money, CDFW must seek funding to support new responsibilities.

What should people do if they encounter a wolf?

Though wolves rarely pose a direct threat to human safety, CDFW recommends that people never approach, feed or otherwise tamper with a wolf. If you have a close encounter with a wolf or wolves, do not run. Maintain eye contact. Act aggressively, make noise while retreating slowly. If the wolf does not retreat, continue acting aggressively by yelling or throwing objects. Know how to protect yourself and avoid contact with wild animals before entering their habitat.

If wolves move into California, will CDFW want people to report seeing them?

Yes, please. Contact the nearest CDFW Regional Office or the Headquarters Wildlife Branch.

What does a wolf look like?

Wolves are large canines. Adults may weigh up to 120 pounds and stand 26-34 inches at the shoulder. Tracks may be up to 4 inches wide and 5 inches long. The tail hangs down or straight and is never curled.

If I think I saw a wolf, how would I know for sure?

Given that wolves were extirpated in California nearly 90 years ago, CDFW experts believe that any “wolf” sighting is likely to be a case of misidentification. Recent wolf sightings mostly fall into one of three different possibilities:

  • Coyote. Coyotes are the wildlife species most similar to wolves, but much smaller. Some of the best clues for identifying an animal are in the wolf-coyote comparison illustration. Coyotes are often seen because they are abundant throughout California and can be somewhat bold. One of the greatest differences between the species is size, sometimes difficult to estimate at a distance outdoors.
  • Domestic or feral dogs. Some large breeds, particularly malamutes, German shepherds or akitas can be mistaken for a wolf.
  • Wolf-dog hybrids. Wolf-dog hybrids can have a strong physical resemblance to a wolf. Their behavior can be unpredictable and some have been released into the wild, living like feral dogs. Distinctions between wolf-dogs and wolves can sometimes only be made by DNA testing.

If you do see an animal you suspect may be a wolf take a picture if possible, note the exact location, date, number of animals and what the animals are doing, and please let CDFW know.

How do wolves interact with other carnivores?

Wolves are known to kill and consume coyotes and several studies show that coyote populations decrease when wolves become reestablished in the same habitat. Wolves sometimes kill bears, particularly while bears are denned up in the winter, but it is unusual for wolves to eat bears. Wolf packs will occasionally kill mountain lions particularly when wolves take over the carcass of a mountain lion kill. Mountain lions and black bears are the only native predators in California capable of killing an adult wolf. In summary, wolves, bears and mountain lions are capable of, and do, kill each other. Although one species may consume another, they do not rely on these other large carnivores as prey.

If wolves become established in California won’t they eat all the elk and deer?

It’s unlikely that habitat in California will support a large wolf population. Of course, any wolves that become established in California will kill and eat other animals and the existing relationships between herbivores and carnivores in occupied habitat will change. One factor that has been shown to limit wolf populations in other states is prey availability. Where deer and elk populations are low in California, and where human activity and population density is high, wolf populations are likely to be low. It’s worth noting that elk populations in states with wolves (Idaho, Montana,Wyoming) have mostly remained stable, although some have declined. In a few areas, impacts of wolf predation on specific elk populations have been substantial. Elk behavior has been documented to change when wolves are present. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming there is little if any information to indicate deer populations have been significantly affected.

How do I prevent wolves from eating livestock and pets?

Some wolves have learned that livestock can be easy prey. Proactive measures can be taken to protect livestock (guarding and herding animals, range riders, wolf-targeted fencing, night penning, livestock carcass removal, etc.). Other states have encouraged such measures along with allowances for non-lethal harassment, and even lethal control of wolves that cause problems for livestock producers. It is also useful to understand the magnitude of the risk. For example, in Idaho — which currently has a population of more than 700 wolves — a cow has a less than one in 21,400 chance of being killed by a wolf. In Idaho, wolves kill three or four times more sheep than cattle but the individual probability is still small, that is, less than 1 in 500. This mortality is offset to a degree by decreased predation from coyotes because where wolves re-colonize habitat, coyote numbers have decreased by 40-50 percent.

What land use restrictions come with wolves?

None. Wolves are habitat “generalists,” meaning they can adapt to living in many kinds of habitat. Wolves basically need two things to thrive: prey and human tolerance. Wolf den sites, where pups are born, are protected by law from disturbance when occupied. But land use restrictions, as have been used to protect other endangered species that depend on very specific habitat, are not expected in California.

Do wolves have parasites that can spread to other animals and people?

Similar to domestic dogs, coyotes and foxes wolves can host Echinococcus species tapeworms. These tapeworms are found worldwide.

Typically, the tapeworms and their eggs, throughout the course of their lifecycle are found in the intestine of an infected canine and in its feces. Other animals (deer, elk, moose, sheep, goats, cows or rodents) can become infected by ingesting eggs that were passed with the canine feces. If these animals are then consumed by another canine, the parasite lives in the intestine and the life cycle begins again.

(For detailed life-cycle information, please see www.dpd.cdc.gov/DPDx/html/Echinococcosis.htm.)

People may become infected if they ingest tapeworm eggs. Eggs could be ingested while consuming vegetation or drinking water that has been contaminated with feces. Humans could also become infected by not washing their hands before eating if they’ve handled canine feces or contaminated canine fur. Likewise, if a pet dog rolled in feces infected with tapeworm eggs, good hygiene is required after handling the dog.

Most human infections are associated with infected domestic dogs, not wildlife, and regular deworming treatment of domestic dogs and good hygienic practices by humans in contact with them are the best methods of control and prevention.

To prevent infection: 1) Do not consume or allow your dog to consume uncooked meat or organs of wild or domestic ungulates. If your dog does have access to carcasses, talk to your veterinarian about an appropriate deworming treatment. 2) Do not touch or disturb wolf, coyote or fox scat. 3) Wear gloves when field dressing a canid carcass and wash any body part that may have come into contact with feces or contaminated fur.

If wolves colonize northern California, will CDFW monitor them?

If possible within budget, staffing and federal ESA limitations, CDFW would implement monitoring.

Will wolves attack people?

Wild wolves generally fear and avoid people, rarely posing a threat to human safety. In recent years there was one human mortality in Canada caused by either wolves or bears and one confirmed human mortality in Alaska by wolves. Of the 18 reports of wolf aggression toward humans in North America in the past 40 years, 11 involved wolves habituated to humans and six involved domestic dogs. Wolves can become habituated to humans in areas where they regularly encounter humans or human food. To avoid habituation, wolves, like all other wildlife, should never be fed or approached.

Will wolves attack pets?

Yes. The gray wolf  is the ancestor of domestic dogs. Wolves view domestic dogs as competitors, territorial intruders or prey and have attacked and killed them, especially in remote areas. Dog owners need to be aware of the potential risk to their dogs if they are in wolf habitat, especially when guarding or herding livestock, hunting, accompanying hikers or running. Cats and rabbits are prey for wolves.

Will California have a hunting season on wolves someday?

It’s impossible at this point in time to predict future legal status, population status, trends and distribution of wolves in California. Any speculation on future hunting of wolves in California is premature.