California is nothing if not skilled at stirring up the passions of the people, even when the issue at hand exists largely (or wholly) outside its borders and is addressed in numerous laws. Case in point last week: the question to list the gray wolf.
At a public California Fish and Game Commission meeting held in Ventura last Wednesday, the question at hand was whether to list the gray wolf under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The listing decision was to be made at the meeting, but ultimately the five-person commission voted to defer the listing decision to early July.
The push for listing the gray wolf under the CESA came from a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) after a lone wolf ventured into the state over two years ago. In late 2011, a radio-collared male wolf from a known Oregon pack—OR7, popularly called “Journey”—decided to go on a multi-year walkabout from his pack. His travels brought him into California in late December of 2011 where he stayed for a while until late April of 2013.
He has appeared in California off and on since then, with his recent documented appearances in California being brief, in some cases no more than a few hours.
As a result of OR7’s presence in California, the CBD petitioned the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to consider listing the gray wolf under CESA. The meeting held last Wednesday was in response to that petition, following a review of the gray wolf’s status as a species in California.
The petition came despite existing federal protections. Federally, the gray wolf is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the individual recovery areas where gray wolves have been reintroduced have been either delisted due to exceeding recovery goals in those areas or are listed as non-essential experimental populations. As such, OR7 and any other wolves that might migrate from Oregon or Idaho—out of the designated recovery areas— would be protected under the federal ESA.
In speaking to WLJ, Dana Michaels, Communications Specialist for the CDFW, confirmed that any wolf that ventures into the state out of one of the delisted recovery zones would be protected in California under the federal ESA. This fact was reiterated and even expanded upon by Charlton Bonham, Director of the CDFW, in his Feb. 5 memorandum to the commission, as well as his presentation at the Ventura meeting.
“The gray wolf is currently protected as an endangered species under the federal ESA, which prohibits any ‘take’ of the species in California and other areas of the western U.S. If that status were to change, a possibility currently being considered, existing laws in California would classify gray wolf as a non-game mammal pursuant to Fish and Game Code section 4150. This section prohibits the take or possession of non-game mammals or parts thereof except as provided in the code or regulations adopted by the commission. Under this scenario, there may be instances in which take would be authorized, such as a situation in which a gray wolf is injuring crops or property, unless the commission takes preventative action. If federal delisting were to occur, the commission would have the regulatory authority to limit, condition, or even completely prohibit such ‘depredation’ take.”
The why behind redundant listing
The drive to list a species not only already covered under the federal ESA, but also by other state laws, is perplexing on first glance. Redundant listing isn’t uncommon in California—of the 44 animals listed under the CESA, 37 are also listed as threatened or endangered under the federal ESA—but for the gray wolf the situation is unique.
The possibility that gray wolves may lose their federal ESA status was a driving factor behind the petition to list them under CESA. Not only was this directly stated in the CBD petition, but was repeated time and time again during the lengthy public comments portion of the Ventura meeting.
The potential of federal delisting was a palpable concern voiced by commenters.
Of the nearly 60 individuals who spoke on the wolf listing issue, over three-quarters beseeched the commission to list the gray wolf. Some speakers presented science-, legal- or economic-based arguments; most comments in favor of listing were emotional. One woman even howled after discussing the spiritual importance of the wolf. Speakers in favor of listing often dipped into extreme language, likening non-listing with a death sentence to the species in light of the potential federal delisting. This detail struck Bonham as odd.
“This idea that, without the CESA listing, wolves in California could not be; I struggle with that logic. I am also struggling with the proposition that without [CESA] listing, we automatically become like Idaho,” he said, following hours in which Idaho and other states that have seen wolves delisted were called sites of wolf “slaughter” and “holocaust” by commenters. “I’m struggling with that logic.”
He stressed that the CD- FW is dedicated to sciencebased conservation efforts in the best interest of the species and stakeholders, but also pointed out that there are a number of options available with regards to gray wolf protection and management. CESA listing is only one option on a list of possibilities.
He outlined the CDFW’s four other potential options both at the meeting and in his Feb. 5 memorandum:
• Designating gray wolf as a species of special concern;
• Completing the California Wolf Plan, with reporting to the commission;
• Commission action under existing authorities in the Fish and Game
Code to prohibit the take of OR7 and gray wolf even for depredation;
• The prospect of CESA listing at a later date.
To list or not to list
Much of the discussion during the meeting and in the Gray Wolf Status Evaluation Report—a topic of extensive attention during the meeting—turned on the detail that California has seen only one individual wolf within its borders in over 90 years. In general, the evaluation claimed the scientific basis for listing a species (a collective of individuals who could continue themselves) was not borne out on the back of a lone individual.
“Having considered the CESA-specific factors, the department concludes that the best scientific information available to the department does not indicate that the gray wolf’s continued existence is in serious danger or is threatened by any one of any combination of the following factors found in relevant regulation: present or threatened modification or destruction of gray wolf habitat; over-exploitation; predation; competition; disease; or other natural occurrences or human-related activities. Therefore, based upon the best scientific information available to the department, listing the gray wolf as threatened or endangered is not warranted,” read the memorandum.
Though not directly stated, it seems the presence of an individual of a species in the state was not viewed as equivalent with the existence of that species in the state. Whatever threats might exist for the individual OR7, they were not viewed as threats to the species as a whole.
The memorandum did conclude with a recommendation, however, suggesting the gray wolf be granted immediate protections against take “under other existing authorities in the Fish and Game Code” in the event of federal delisting.
The representative from the CBD, which submitted the original listing petition, countered the premise that threats to one individual within the state did not equal threats to the species’ existence within the state. She additionally cited examples of other species listed under the CESA that were listed (or not delisted) despite no members of the species residing in the state such as the wolverine and the Guadalupe fur seal.
While the issue of the meeting and in the evaluation might have been what Michaels called the state’s “part-time wolf,” both the CDFW and many of the public commenters at the meeting stressed that wolf colonization of California is inevitable. Bonham, in his memorandum and again at the Ventura meeting, said that, “it is reasonable to conclude that California may have a functioning pack of wolves within 10 years, given the population dynamics in Oregon and dispersal patterns of OR7.”
Commenters in favor of listing under CESA who brought up this detail suggested listing the wolf now rather than later would be a proactive step. Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales reprised an earlier detail during his comments at the meeting on the issue of timing.
“The decision today, is the decision today,” he said with emphasis. “In the future, the circumstances may change where it may seem fit to make that decision to list the gray wolf. But today I want to support staff’s recommendation to not list today.”
Effects and more comments
The effects of CESA listing for the gray wolf are hard to determine given the overlapping protections already afforded to it under the federal ESA and California Fish and Game Code. The possibility of federal delisting and stopgap protection efforts muddle already cloudy waters.
Kirk Wilbur, Director of Government Relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association, is of the opinion that redundant listing would be bad for California ranchers.
“If it was federally delisted and listed under CESA, the impact would eliminate some of the possibilities for protecting livestock,” he told WLJ.
Under the CESA, listed species and their habitats are protected from many forms of take, lethal controls without permits, and protections from various forms of harassment. However, under current federal listing, any wolves in California are already prevented from lethal take even in the case of livestock predation. If federal listing status were to change, California Fish and Game Code statutes would require permits for lethal take.
The commission voted to defer their listing decision on the wolf out to the maximum legal time of 90 days from last Wednesday. The comment period will be reopened to the public and the public can comment in person at an already scheduled June 4 meeting in Fortuna. There was talk at the meeting last Wednesday of scheduling another meeting in early July specifically for the purpose of announcing their listing decision.
The vote to extend the comment period stemmed from the overwhelming interest and additional comments submitted, as well as the realization not many agricultural stakeholders could attend. The commission will be considering some of the additional information presented by commenters, as well as investigating the four other options presented by Bonham. Look for more information in WLJ on the comment period extension and the potential July meeting in the future. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor