Gray Wolf Pack Makes Tulare County Home
A first report of a sighting came in July, and a follow-up investigation by the CDFW confirmed wolf tracks and other signs North America’s top canine predator is once again roaming among the pine and redwood forests. Gray wolves – a species native to California – were hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s.
The wolves returned to the Southern Sierra Nevada on their own. The six wolves now living here are descendants of the first wolf known to reinhabit the state – an animal known as OR7 – who crossed the Oregon-California border in 2011.
The return of gray wolves following eradication by humans is a success story, both for the wolves and the people who’ve worked to make their return possible. The establishment of a pack here marks the farthest south the packs have come so far.
“It’s just an incredible ecological story for us,” said Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications for CDFW. “It’s all historic wolf habitat. It’s so exciting to see them so far south.”
A Chance Discovery
Until they were photographed this summer, no one knew the wolves were living in the giant trees or for how long. The discovery was accidental, made by researchers working on their own projects in the national forest.
“They’re out in incredibly remote locations,” Traverso said. “They just happened upon them.”
Sequoia National Forest stretches across more than 1.1 million acres in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties and is adjacent to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Other researchers from the CDFW gathered a dozen hair and scat samples. Genetic analysis of the wolf signs revealed at least five never-before detected gray wolves – an adult female and four of her offspring, two males and two females – though other members of the pack may have evaded detection. The DNA analysis identified the coat color of the individual wolves, as well as their relationship to the rest of the state’s wolf population.
Testing also showed the adult male wolf that fathered Tulare County’s pack is descended from the Lassen Pack. The Lassen Pack is one of three other documented gray wolf packs in the state. That pack’s range in western Lassen and northern Plumas counties is estimated to be between 200 and 300 miles north of Sequoia National Forest.
The state’s other two wolf packs are the Whaleback Pack in eastern Siskiyou County and the Beckworth Pack in southern Plumas County. Two other possible small wolf packs are being investigated: a second pack in Lassen County and a pack in Tehama County.
“We’re seeing a lot of packs dispersing, individuals leaving packs,” Traverso said.
The CDFW was not specific about where in Sequoia National Forest the pack was first sighted, other than in Tulare County.
Wolves Pose No Danger to People
Traverso said because of the small size of the pack and its remote hunting grounds it poses no danger to humans.
“They’re not a threat,” she said. “There’s just a very small burgeoning population.”
It was the belief wolves were a danger to people – but mainly to livestock – that drove early Californians to kill off gray wolves as part of a federal, nationwide program to eradicate them. The last gray wolf known in California before their return in 2011 was killed in Lassen County in 1924.
These days, wolves in the wild seldom let themselves be seen, Traverso said, though their haunting calls can now be often heard again.
“It’s just a beautiful sound.”
Wolves have a well-earned reputation for intelligence, and they’ve learned to stay away from humans for their own safety.
“They are stealthy. They are remote,” Traverso said. “They have no desire to be among humans.”
Wolf packs can and do kill livestock, however. But, as a species protected by state and federal law, they cannot be legally hunted or killed. So, the CDFW has a program to pay ranchers for animals they can prove were killed by wild wolves, perhaps removing some of the pressure to keep the wolves from returning to their native territory.
The Sequoia Pack’s Pedigree
The question that will likely never be answered is how the founding wolves made their way here. While it seems intuitive they kept to the forests of the Sierra Nevada, they may not have. The trail leading them to their new home in Sequoia National Forest could have been any number of routes.
“You can kind of choose your own adventure,” Traverso said.
The life and death of OR-93 – a gray wolf that was struck and killed by a vehicle near Lebec on I-5 in November 2021 – shows how far wolves can range. Data from his tracking collar has OR-93 crossing into California from Oregon at the end of January that year. Before his death just 10 months later he made his way to the Southern Sierra, and from there into San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.
On his final journey, OR-93 must have entered populated areas and crossed major highways, including the I-5 in Kern County where his carcass was eventually discovered by a truck driver.
OR-93 has no established genetic link to the Sequoia Pack, despite being tracked to the area. The breeding female living in Tulare County is descended directly from OR-7, the first wolf to return to California in 2011. Her mate carries genes from the Lassen Pack. How they arrived here is anyone’s guess. Traverso said they may even have ranged into Nevada to get here.
Wolves Can Alter the Landscape
The national forest and adjacent national parks are ideal territory for wolves, Traverso said.
“You can look at Sequoia National Forest and see areas that have some cover, that have some food, things that animals need,” she said. “And they need the space away from where humans have established themselves.”
There’s also abundant prey for the pack, and hunting it may actually change the land.
When wolves were eradicated in the Western states, it removed pressure on their prey species, leading to unexpected changes to the country itself that wasn’t immediately obvious until the wolves returned.
In 1995, gray wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park. In their absence, the elk population had been free to overgraze the native cottonwood, willow and aspen strands in the winter months while other food was less abundant. The degradation of the riverside trees led to erosion of waterways and changes in their paths that led to a decline in many other species, notably beavers.
When wolves began hunting elk again in Yellowstone, keeping them on the move during lean winter months, the Wyoming park’s native plants reasserted themselves and declining species rebounded. Beavers – enjoying a recovered and stable source of food and construction material – built more and bigger dams. That led to new wetlands and more firmly fixed banks along the existing waterways.
There was a recharging of the groundwater, an evening out of spring flooding pulses, and new deep, cold and shaded pools where fish and insects thrive. Those new meadows and stands of trees are alive with an explosion of birds. Could something similar happen here?
“I don’t know,” said Traverso. “I’d love to see something like that here, what happened in Yellowstone.”
Threatened species are unlikely to thrive without protection and help from humans, Traverso believes, so it appears efforts to make Tulare County a healthier ecosystem are working. At least from a wolf’s perspective.
“It’s still a very small population, but what we’re seeing is it’s growing,” she said.