Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Wildlife advocates in California are celebrating this week because a pack of wolves has been discovered living in the state’s northernmost areas – the first resident pack in nearly a century!

In May, camera traps deployed by researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) revealed what appeared to be a wolf that had crossed the state boundary into California’s Siskiyou County. Although the team managed to collect a sample of wolf-like poo nearby, the genetic analysis was inconclusive. Then in June, researchers tracking deer spotted what appeared to be wolf tracks. These were tantalising clues, but biologists working with the CDFW needed proof. They set up a number of additional camera traps to see what they could find.

The researchers discovered that not just one, but seven grey wolves have taken up residence in northern California: two adults and five pups. The lone wolf photographed earlier this summer was probably one of the adults. The canid family is being called the Shasta Pack and, yes, they are already on Twitter!

The last wolf to prowl the forests of northern California was known as OR-7, so named because was collared by Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, but he was only a visitor. In the autumn of 2011, the almost three-year-old wolf left his pack in southern Oregon and journeyed in search of potential mates and new territories. In December of that year, he wandered into California. OR-7 is now back in Oregon, raising a family of his own. Before him, the last wolf in California was spotted nearly one hundred years earlier, in 1924. Unlike OR-7, this time the wolves appear to be staying.

Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

“For those of us working in conservation, this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. I was on a plane about to take off when I heard the news and just cheered aloud,” says Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for the National Wildlife Federation. CDFW is now working on a Wolf Management Plan, a document they expect to release soon.

It isn’t clear just what the Shasta Pack means for California, a state that in many places poses a struggle for wild animals trying to survive in a landscape dominated by urban development and agriculture. The fate of California’s wolves now and in the future depends on the willingness of Californians to coexist peacefully with wild animals. It’s a tall order, especially when the animal in question is a predator, a species cast so often as a fairytale villain despite the little threat they pose to human safety.

Still, the wolves’ return to California – and the fact that they managed to elude detection for at least a few months – means that they are finding a way to carve out an existence despite the threat of roads, hunters and harmful pesticides.

“What [the Shasta Pack] speaks to is the beauty and resiliency of wild things, one that most of us sense only from the margins,” says Pratt-Bergstrom. “Wolves don’t operate by our rules and laws, and their ability to defy our expectations is something to celebrate ... They have captured our imaginations and excite so many with their promise of wildness.”

Top headr image: Jethro Taylor/Flickr