California Judge Upholds State Protections for Gray Wolves

Published March 12, 2019

A California state court judge in San Diego ruled gray wolves will continue to be protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act (CESA), rejecting a legal challenge brought by ranchers and farmers against a decision by California’s Fish and Game Commission (FGC) to list the wolves as endangered.

Dispute Over Authority

The California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) sued FGC, arguing the commission violated state law by listing the gray wolf as an endangered species, because wolves do not currently meet the criteria for listing. The listing was based on the siting of a single gray wolf that had entered the state from Oregon on a couple of occasions.

CESA grants FGC the authority to list native species as endangered only when they meet specific criteria. Foremost among them is the species having an actual presence in the state.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, presented evidence the gray wolf does not meet this criterion because the wolf in question was not native and did not have a continual presence in the state but instead only briefly and occasionally crossed the border from Oregon into California only to roam back to Oregon, where it formed a pack. 

‘Bad Policy’

The endangerment finding is unjustified, says Damien Schiff, a senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.

“Listing the gray wolf as endangered is bad policy and jumping the gun,” said Schiff. “We also contend it’s not authorized by our state ESA.

“I think the most significant aspect of the listing decision is the idea you can list a population or you can protect an entire species just based upon the intermittent presence within the state of individual members of that species,” Schiff said. “With respect to the individual wolf, ‘OR-7,’ that was present in the state and precipitated the listing, that wolf ultimately didn’t settle down in California. It settled in southwestern Oregon and established a pack there.”

To date, FGC has been unable to find any other wolf or pack that has established territory in California, says Schiff.

‘Legal and Linguistic Gymnastics’

Gray wolves are not at risk of extinction throughout their range, as required by CESA, but have instead enjoyed a population surge throughout the West since gray wolves from Canada were introduced into the Yellowstone ecosystem in the 1990s, says Kirk Wilbur, director of government affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association.

“To justify protecting the species under CESA, the commission engaged in legal and linguistic gymnastics to artificially limit the gray wolf’s relevant ‘range’ to California’s borders,” Wilbur said. “The legislature intended CESA to protect species on the decline, and never intended CESA’s protections to apply to species enjoying the sort of resurgence wolves have enjoyed.

“The commission’s decision, and the court’s ruling, mean California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has absolutely no management control over this apex predator, leaving ranchers few viable options for ensuring their animals’ well-being,” said Wilbur. “California is unique in this regard. Every other Western state allows for state control of wolves that present chronic threats to livestock.” 

‘Ranchers Need More Flexibility’

The California Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement saying, “Wolves hurt and kill cattle and other livestock, which is why ranchers need more flexibility in co-existing with wolves—and why we filed the lawsuit. The state listing gives ranchers limited options to protect their animals.”

Wolves undermine livestock production both directly and indirectly, says Noelle Cremers, director of Natural Resources and Commodities with the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“If a wolf pack that kills a number of cattle and develops a taste for livestock becomes established in California, then this obviously has a direct financial impact on the ranchers,” said Cremers. “In addition, when wolves live in the vicinity of cattle, cattle change their behavior, for example by changing where they graze and when they graze, and they also have lower rates of conception.

“So wolves have a significant financial impact on ranchers even if they don’t have any livestock killed by wolves,” Cremers said. “The listing severely limits, if not completely eliminates, any possible management of wolves to protect the livestock producers.” 

‘Going to Create Antagonism’

Brian Seasholes, an independent consultant, says the decision to list the gray wolf as endangered is bad news for California’s wolf conservation efforts.

“Wolves are a very controversial species because they prey on livestock, domestic pets, and hunting dogs,” said Seasholes. “In states with large wolf populations, such as Minnesota, annual costs of wolf depredation can run into tens of thousands of dollars, almost all of which is borne by working-class rural landowners.

“Evidence shows if landowners feel they are not being treated and compensated fairly for the very real costs of living with wolves, they will take matters into their own hands by eliminating wolves,” Seasholes said. “California’s listing the wolf as endangered is only going to create antagonism and hard feelings among rural landowners who live in the state’s northern regions.”

City dwellers don’t understand how much wolves can cost rural residents, says Schiff.

“There is a significant cattle and sheep industry here in California, particularly in the northern counties of the state where a wolf was sighted,” Schiff said. “Yet, the principal advocates for this approach [strict protection under the CESA] to wolf management are people who have never nor will ever experience any of the downsides to that management.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.