by Emma Marris
The wolves at our door
It is a frosty spring morning, and I’m tracking celebrity wolves in Southern Oregon. The patriarch of this pack is a big deal. Scientists call him OR7, the seventh wolf in Oregon to be captured and fitted with a tracking collar. Environmentalists call him Journey, a name that pays homage to his epic thousand-mile trek from his birth pack in northeastern Oregon to the California border. A few days after Christmas in 2011, OR7 crossed that border, becoming the first known wild wolf in the state since 1924.1 When OR7 found a mate—a dark black female without a collar, or a known history—they settled in Oregon, much to the disappointment of lobo fans in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other hotspots of California wolf fandom.
Now I think I might be looking at his poop. The sun is raising steam off the graveled timber roads. We’re driving along, slowly, with a VHF receiver balanced on the front console of the truck. So far, all we’ve heard from the receiver is static—none of the pings that would indicate that OR7’s collar is in range. But John Stephenson, the US Fish and Wildlife biologist I’m accompanying, has a lead. Yesterday, he followed the VHF signal to OR7 and caught a glimpse of the gray wolf and one of his offspring, but the wolves saw Stephenson first and were gone in a flash. “It is so hard to get a visual in this country,” Stephenson says. “Too many damn trees.”
We drive to the site of this very brief interspecies encounter and find a few monstrous piles of poop, bristling with elk hair. Stephenson bags them. We also find at least three sets of tracks headed straight down the road. Wolf prints are larger than almost all dog prints, and they typically run in these very straight lines. “It’s a good way to tell a wolf from a large dog,” Stephenson says. “Dogs tend to wander around.”
We follow the tracks for some time, until we lose the trail on hard, dry ground. We spend the rest of the day crisscrossing the forest, seeing only the odd logging truck—no other cars or trucks, and no wolves. It’s not surprising OR7 finds this nearly humanless place a good home. Wolves generally do their very best to avoid people.
With an average population density of almost 250 people per square mile, California might seem an unlikely choice for wolves in search of a home. But as far we know, wolves don’t read road atlases or care about statistical averages, and there is some very wild and remote country in northeastern California—from the arid Modoc plateau to the pine and fir forests of Mount Lassen. Stephenson wonders whether there are enough deer and elk to sustain a robust wolf population in the state; but as he prepares to document the second round of pups for this family that lives within one or two long day’s walk of the California border, he says some of OR7’s children could “easily” settle down in the Golden State.
Indeed, on 20 August 2015 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that camera traps had caught snaps of fuzzy wolf pups playing in Northern California. They probably aren’t OR7’s grandchildren—Stephenson thinks they are the pups of “previously undetected dispersers from Idaho or Northeast Oregon.” But even if this family doesn’t make a permanent home in California, the expansion of wolves into California seems inevitable. The first wolves entered neighboring Oregon in the late 1990s, the children of reintroductions undertaken by the federal government in the early 1990s in Idaho. They’ve found Southern Oregon to be a good home, and as their numbers increase, they will almost certainly carve out additional territories in California.
The state has been preparing for their return. On 4 June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to preemptively list gray wolves as endangered under the state Endangered Species Act. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife had been completing a plan for managing the incoming wolves, though now it may need revising. Ranchers, hunters, and environmentalists have all been invited to be part of the process, and wolf advocates are feeling good about the prospects for a more cooperative, less contentious coexistence between wolves and livestock in northern California than in the Rocky Mountains (where the “wolf wars” have turned the animal into a political football). The emphasis is on teaching the wolves not to go after livestock, by frightening them away with flagging tape, loud noises, and livestock-guarding dogs. “We are hoping to do what we can before wolves get here so it can be different,” says Karin Vardaman, director of California wolf recovery at the California Wolf Center. “Because, really, if you keep politics out of it, in areas where ranchers have learned to use these nonlethal tools correctly, the controversy just went away.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is struggling to come up with maps of where wolves could live in the state or estimates of how large a population the state potentially could host. Historical records aren’t helpful—but not, as you might think, because of how much California has changed. The problem is that virtually no historical records exist. California eradicated the wolf from its landscapes so quickly and thoroughly that the animals barely appear in the historical record. It’s a testament to the power of colonization and modernization that a species that was no doubt once an apex predator, one of the kings of California along with the grizzly, was reduced to a rumor, a word, a skull, a walk-on role in legend.
Indeed, until recently, it was often repeated (notably in Barry Lopez’s book Of Wolves and Men) that there never were any wolves in California. Scientific maps showing the precontact range of wolves in North America compiled in 1944, 1953, 1981, and 2002 omit all or most of the state.2
Only two natural history museum specimens are verified to be California wolves from the twentieth century. There are none from the nineteenth. “I was shocked when I started looking. How could there only be two?” says Sarah Hendricks, a geneticist who hoped to learn about the state’s population dynamics by analyzing DNA from old skulls and pelts. Hendricks was working in a UCLA lab run by canine geneticist Robert Wayne when the state requested a thorough report on what was known about the vanished wolf packs’ population structure just before eradication. Hendricks had only two skulls to work with, both from animals collected in the 1920s and housed in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. The museum sent her the tiniest sample possible—minute shavings from the inside of the precious skulls’ nostrils. “I opened up the envelopes and I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work, because there is hardly anything here,'” Hendricks says. But she managed to pull enough DNA from the material to establish that a wolf killed in San Bernardino County in 1922 was probably a Mexican wolf, a distinct subspecies currently being reintroduced into the wild in the Southwest. The other skull came from California’s last recorded wild wolf, an emaciated, maimed critter killed in Lassen County in 1924. It had DNA markers linking it to the large population of gray wolves of the Rocky Mountains and Canada.3 Because OR7 descends from wolves reintroduced to Idaho from inland British Columbia, Hendricks’s analysis suggests that more or less the “right” kind of wolf—according to ecologists—is recolonizing Oregon and California. But with just two specimens, it is pointless to even try to guess at population densities or dynamics of these wolves.
“Other states have a frame of reference for what their populations were historically before they were eradicated,” says Karen Kovacs, wildlife program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We scoured every source we could find.” Kovacs and her team looked for trapping records. Nothing. They looked at historical accounts of the first Europeans, but she felt many of these were unreliable because of a widespread loosey-goosey habit of referring to coyotes as a kind of wolf.
Back in 1991, ecologist Robert Schmidt, then at Berkeley, combed through more than fifty European historical accounts, looking for those writers who separately mentioned and clearly distinguished between coyotes, foxes, and wolves. He also gave writers who were trained naturalists the benefit of the doubt that they knew their canids, and he found several sightings that qualified under those rules.4 Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, for example, saw two species of “wolves” in the San Francisco Bay area—most likely wolves and coyotes. In Schmidt’s estimation, wolves likely lived in the Central Valley, Coast Ranges, and Sierra Nevada until about 1800. Trapping, shooting, and poisoning of these suspected livestock thieves likely occurred so quickly and so thoroughly that they were nearly lost to Euro-American history.
Of course, that’s not the only history in California. Two analyses of native languages and literature have found traces of the wolf across nearly the whole state. In 2001, Alexandra Geddes-Osborne and Malcolm Margolin found separate words for “wolf” and “coyote” in many indigenous languages, and a role for wolves in story and ceremonies, in tribes as disparate as the Karuk in the far north, to the Pomo in the center of the state, and the Luiseno in the south.5 More recently, a report by scholars from the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University found fifteen indigenous languages across the state with different words for wolf, coyote, and dog, and five tribes with traditions in which the wolf features.6
One can go even further back in time, beyond history to prehistory. At the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, little kids stare in horrified fascination at an animatronic saber tooth cat taking down a slightly mangy-looking stuffed ground sloth in the public area. Meanwhile, drawers and drawers of specimens from Pleistocene California—from 10,000 to 50,000 years old—compose a deeper archive. Dire wolves—giant relatives of modern gray wolves, though not their ancestors—are the most common fossils found at the site. Researchers have unearthed the bones of some four thousand individual dire wolves. Presumably, mastodons and ground sloths stuck in the tar were so tempting that they lured the dire wolves to their doom.
A curator at the tar pits looks slightly bemused that I’m less interested in the dire wolves (currently chic thanks to their appearance in Game of Thrones) than regular old Canis lupus. “Does the collection include gray wolves?” I ask.
It does, indeed. We walk down a long, narrow corridor between metal cabinets, open a drawer, and here are riches of wolf bones, looking, as tar pit specimens do, mahogany colored and polished. There are teeth, jaws, and skulls. Nineteen drawers in all. When the first people came to what is now California, there were almost certainly wolves here.
Of course, there are still wolves in California—in Los Angeles, in fact. But these aren’t free-roaming wildlife. They are pets—or prisoners, depending on your point of view. Jennifer McCarthy, a dog trainer, spent four years in Colorado studying and working with captive wolves on a large piece of land. She now applies what she learned there to the dogs of the greater Los Angeles area, including the fully domesticated, nonwolf pooches of celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, the Osborne family, and Renee Zellweger. Some of McCarthy’s less famous clients own wolves or wolf-dog hybrids. For many people, there is an undeniable attraction to being that close with a piece of the wild. But wolves and wolf dogs make notoriously poor pets. They can bite. They don’t follow direction well. Their predatory instincts are strong, and, most of all, they are incredible escape artists. They don’t bond with people the way dogs do. Wolves may sound like a cool companion animal, but they spend their lives trying to be wolves, with sometimes-disastrous consequences.
McCarthy meets me in Redondo Beach at a coffee shop, wearing a black hoodie that says “Wolf Woman” on it. “There are people who live in the city of Los Angeles with 100 percent full-blown wolves,” she says. In one case, she was called to an apartment in Beverly Hills where a wolf had chewed through the floor and escaped into the apartment below.
McCarthy disapproves of breeding and selling wolves and part-wolves. “I really believe these animals were meant to be wild,” she says. “Wolves don’t want a lot to do with us.” But she will try to keep pet wolves from being euthanized, either by working on their behavior or placing them in one of the always-crowded specialty wolf rescues. She also volunteers her time to transport wolves and wolf dogs to shelters when necessary.
McCarthy’s experience with wolves suggests to her that even if they recolonize the state in large numbers, they will stay as far away from people as possible. “I couldn’t picture wolves walking down Santa Monica Boulevard at night, going through garbage cans,” she says.
That’s a job for another California canine: the coyote. Smaller, faster-breeding, and potentially more adaptable, the coyote inherited the lands the wolf left behind when humans exterminated it across most of the country. Coyotes, unlike wolves, are nearly impossible to eradicate. You can shoot, trap, and poison them all day long, and they’ll just keep coming.
In a lot of the native California and Oregon stories in which Wolf appears, he seems to be kind of a straight man to the trickster Coyote, who is sometimes his brother. Geddes-Osborne and Margolin retell a story from the Chemehuevi,7 in which Wolf is a brave warrior who saves the day and his little brother when the Bear people attack. Wolf fights in a magnificent multicolored robe, which becomes the rainbow. He is “wiser, more stately and in charge” than his little brother Coyote. This reminds me of stories from the Northern Paiute, recorded in 1938 by Berkeley anthropologist Isabel Kelly.8 In these stories, Wolf and Coyote are brothers, and Coyote is constantly taking risks out of curiosity, despite the warnings of his sage, conservative older brother, Wolf. Here’s a fragment of a tale told by Bige Archie of the Gidii’tikadu or Groundhog Eater band, in Modoc County, California.
They saw someone camped. Coyote wanted to see whose camp it was. Wolf told him, “Those are pretty bad people; don’t go there.” Coyote thought they might have some ya’pa [camas] roots. “I’ll go anyway,” he said. He went over to the camp. There were some Bear women in there. There was lots of ya’pa drying outside. Coyote found a basket. He scooped up some ya’pa and ran. They came after him; they came close behind him. He threw back the basket and hit those women right on the legs. He didn’t eat much of the ya’pa; he didn’t have time.
Coyote caught up with Wolf, and they went on.9
There seem to be some essential truths here about the natures of these two canines. It may be debatable whether wolves have more dignity. But they are certainly much more risk-averse. They tend to approach novel situations with the utmost caution; they shun humans; they take a long time to warm up to strange wolves. Coyotes are reckless and innovative, and as a result, humans have never managed to kill them off, in California or anywhere else. Stories about coyotes outnumber stories about wolves in most Oregon and California Indian literatures by a considerable margin. Does that mean there were fewer wolves or just that Coyote is a more compelling character for human storytellers?
Coyotes have adapted to a modern, crowded California. They cross Sunset Boulevard in San Francisco in the afternoon,10 nibble on lychee and avocados from suburban Southern California gardens,11 and forage in Santa Monica’s exuberantly varied and rich trashcans.
I have a hard time imagining wolves in those dangerous, liminal niches. Perhaps when wolves come back to a California vastly more overrun with humans than the one they last knew, they will stay hidden in the kind of remote forests favored by OR7 and his pups—places where you can drive up and down ridges all day and hear nothing but the drone of VHF receiver static, the croaks of ravens, and the scold of nuthatches; places where you know wolves are there, but you never see them. Or perhaps wolves will surprise me and everyone else and push in close to human California, appearing on ranches, in coastal suburbs, and even in major cities.
No matter where wolves live and how many there are, humans will be watching. The leaders of California’s first wolf packs likely will be caught and fitted with transmitting collars, just as in the other western states. The first colonists may well have Twitter accounts, like OR7. One thing is sure. In the first year of their official residence in the state, more will be known about them and written about them than all of the wolf generations before 1924.
All photographs by Emma Marris unless otherwise indicated.
1. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Gray Wolf (Canis lupus),” accessed 11 May 2015, http://dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/nongame/wolf/.
3. Sarah A. Hendricks, Pauline C. Charruau, John P. Pollinger, Richard Callas, Peter J. Figura, and Robert K. Wayne, “Polyphyletic Ancestry of Historic Gray Wolves Inhabiting US Pacific States,” Conservation Genetics (2014): 1–6.