UPDATE 3/26/2017: The Nevada Department of Wildlife announced on Friday that a member of the pack has moved through the state. A lone male was seen about 20 miles from the California border near Black Rock Desert back in November, reports say. This marks the first wolf sighting in Nevada in nearly a century – and conservationists at the University of Idaho have confirmed that scat collected from the area matches DNA from one of the Shasta pups. The finding suggests that some of the Shasta wolves have dispersed from their California birthplace, but officials caution that it's too early to say whether the pack has established a territory in Nevada.
Studying wolves often involves waiting for the stealthy canines to slink past a camouflaged camera trap – but after ten long months, biologists in California are still tapping their fingers. A seven-member pack, the first to settle in the state in nearly a century, seems to have vanished without a trace.
Known as the "Shasta wolves", the family made headlines last year after camera-trap footage showed the alpha female had given birth to five healthy black-coated pups. The last known gray wolf indigenous to California before these new arrivals was shot by a hunter in 1924.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) was understandably tight-lipped about the pack's original location. Among the biggest threats to wild wolves – both in the United States and elsewhere – is conflict with people and communities who perceive these predators as a threat to livestock.
While the Shasta pack's arrival sparked excitement among many California locals, not everyone welcomed the news. Several commenters online responded to the reports with the acronym "SSS", which stands for shoot, shovel and shut up. Poison-laced traps set for coyotes have also killed several endangered wolves along America's west coast, with the most recent death reported just last month.
Although some suspect such foul play in the disappearance of the Shasta wolves, CDFW notes that there is currently no indication that any of the pack members have been killed, or any evidence implicating the ranching community.
The Shasta wolves haven't been seen since May, when a lone pup was spotted wandering outside the pack's known stomping grounds. It could be that these animals simply dispersed beyond our scope.
"We're reasonably confident that last year they did not use the same area as a pack as they did the year before, and we don't know why," CDFW scientist Pete Figura told The San Fransisco Chronicle. "Why they were not detected anywhere else this past summer we don't have a clear explanation for."
Wolf packs tend to stick to their territories, but it's possible this group moved on in search of prey. It's the only pack known to inhabit California's wild spaces, and in the absence of any neighbouring rivals, these wolves ostensibly have more freedom to roam about.
It's not uncommon for a pack's perimeter to span 50 square miles, but when food is scarce, this can extend up to 1,000 miles. Data collected from Oregon's famed "OR-7" wolf in 2014 showed that his territory was about 355 square miles.
Meanwhile, intriguing clues from California's Siskiyou County suggest this vanishing tale could still have a happy ending. CDFW found evidence of wolves in the area back in January. "We detected some tracks and collected some scat and are awaiting DNA analysis," explains Figura. "It could have been a member of the Shasta pack or a completely different animal. We don't know at this time."
Locating the "canids at large" is made trickier by the fact that none of the Shasta wolves is wearing a radio collar.
Reports of black wolves in southern Oregon in the summer of 2016 have also prompted suggestions that at least some of the Shasta pups may have scampered north. That's difficult to prove, however. There are currently seven gray wolf breeding pairs, in eight packs, residing in Oregon, and our best guess puts about a hundred individuals on the "Beaver State" map – so it's entirely possible that the dark-haired wolves in these cameos belonged to one of the local lineages.
At this point, CDFW's samples from Siskiyou County are the best evidence we have to go on. DNA was previously scooped up from six of the seven Shasta individuals: the breeding male, breeding female, one female pup and three male pups. If the scat collected was in fact dropped by a member of the pack, the chances of a match are high. In the meantime, the search continues.
"We're looking for them," says Figura. "Part of our job and our hope is to keep track of California's wolves, and we are certainly trying to do that."
Anyone with information on the Shasta pack is encouraged to contact the CDFW on their website. We'll be updating you as the story unfolds, so watch this space.
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