In an extraordinary move, the California Fish and Game Commission voted Wednesday to add the gray wolf to the state’s endangered species list—even though the top predator disappeared from the Golden State 90 years ago.
The reason? In December 2011, wildlife officials detected a lone wolf called OR-7 slipping into Northern California from Oregon. Since then, OR-7, which is wearing a GPS-equipped collar, has crisscrossed the border. (Wolves reappeared in Oregon in 1999, most likely traveling from Idaho, where the animal had been reintroduced, and there are now an estimated 46 wolves in Oregon, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.)
“Because of the growth in the Oregon wolf population, an expansion southward appears feasible in the foreseeable future,” according to a February 2014 report from the fish and wildlife department.
In March 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the Fish and Game Commission to list the wolf as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act.
“OR-7 has demonstrated that wolves can still move quickly across the landscape and that suitable habitat still exists in California,” the petition stated. “Wolves are highly adaptable and have the ability to thrive in myriad geographical and climatic conditions throughout California so long as the proper management structure is in place to accommodate the biological needs of wolves and the needs of society.”
The case for protecting the wolf grew stronger Wednesday when biologists confirmed that OR-7 is raising two pups just across the state line in Oregon.
In voting to protect the gray wolf in California, the Fish and Game Commission overruled a recommendation from its staff and the arguments of some biologists, who contended that resources would be better spent protecting other more prevalent animals in the state.
“There is no species more iconic in the American West than this one, the gray wolf,” commission president Michael Sutton said Wednesday, according to the Sacramento Bee. “We owe it to them to do everything we can to help them recolonize their historic range in this state.”
The move comes after other Western states have stripped protections for the wolf. As well, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering taking the animal off the federal endangered species list.
California farmers and ranchers also opposed it. “Listing of the gray wolf will cause real harm to farmers and ranchers who raise livestock through killings of livestock and reduced weight gains with very limited resources to protect our livestock,” wrote Rob Miller, president of the Del Norte County Farm Bureau, to the Fish and Game Commission in a May 19 letter.
Environmentalists, though, hailed the California listing as a milestone in reestablishing one of the United States’ top predators.
“While other states bicker and quarrel, California adds the latest chapter to one of the world’s greatest biological success stories and helps pave the way toward an eventual return of gray wolves to the Golden State,” Damon Nagami, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, Calif., said in a statement.