More than a year after a young wolf was shot and killed on a cold winter day in a wild and windswept corner of California, its death remains unsolved.
Evidence has gone stale. No witnesses have stepped forward. And the culprit behind the crime – the first killing since wolves’ historic return to ancestral habitat — has long since fled the scene on Modoc County’s long and lonely County Road 91, according to new details released by the government last week.
Frustrated by vigilante justice, federal authorities and wolf advocates have raised the reward for any tips leading to an arrest in the December 2018 killing of an endangered species that is both revered and reviled.
“We have exhausted our leads,” said John Heil of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announcing the $2,500 reward for the killing of the wolf known as OR-59. The Center for Biological Diversity has added another $5,000.
Its death signifies the deep and growing conflict between wildlife advocates and the state’s ranchers, disheartened by legal and livestock losses.
Last year, the courts upheld protection for gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act, rejecting a challenge from the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation.
Meanwhile, ranchers who live in wolf territory say their way of life has changed forever.
During the past three years, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed nine instances of cattle lost to wolf depredation on public and private land. There were five killings last summer alone.
And the indirect impact is far larger, they say,
“Due to stress, we see reduced conception rates, reduced weight and increased abortion rates,” said Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association. “That can really add up and harm the bottom line of a small business. Most of these folks operate under pretty small profit margins.”
Meanwhile, ranchers grapple with how to protect livestock in the presence of the predator. Lassen County’s Roney Ranch, homesteaded in the late 1850s and still in the family five generations later, has lost cattle to wolves in each of the past three years, according to a report to the California Farm Bureau Federation. Last summer, it no longer used half of its normal grazing ground and moved cattle to a large meadow every night for safety. This winter, it moved the herd to Butte County, where there are no wolves, earlier than planned. Five Dot Ranch employs cowboys to protect its herds, but it doesn’t always work.
OR-59, wearing a GPS radio collar, was part of ongoing biological research. A black-furred male, it was born in northeast Oregon in April 2017.
By fall, its mother was dead, killed by an Oregon man who, hunting elk alone, said the 83-pound wolf ran towards him and he feared for his life.
Then OR-59 traveled 300 miles south. On Dec. 2, 2018, he crossed into the dry, austere and rugged landscape of California’s Modoc County, about a seven-hour drive from the Bay Area. Wolves in California are protected as endangered under both California and federal Endangered Species Acts.
His arrival further represented the steady expansion of the species across the western United States, restoring a creature that was once shot, trapped and poisoned to near extinction.
OR-59’s ancestors were 35 animals introduced from Canada into central Idaho and Wyoming in 1995 and 1996. These original packs then spread west into Oregon, north into Washington and south to California.
Now, an estimated 6,000 gray wolves can be found in scattered populations across the West and Great Lakes. But they still occupy just a modest portion of their historic U.S. range.
Oregon has at least 137 wolves, a 10 percent increase from last year. Washington, with 126 wolves, has seen their population grow by an average of 28 percent per year.
California only has one group, dubbed the Lassen Pack, which has produced 13 pups over three years. A second group, called the Shasta Pack, has vanished. There wasn’t time to put radio collars on its five pups, and now the only survivor has left the state.
Oregon’s OR-59 was watched closely after its arrival in California. Three days after crossing the state line, it was seen feeding on a dead calf. But it had not killed the calf; an investigation concluded that the calf likely died from pneumonia.
Within a week, the wolf was dead.
For a year, California’s wildlife officers revealed little about the case. Now new details show that OR-59 was shot by a .22 caliber rifle near the pristine Ash Creek Wildlife Area, along the road that links the farming towns of Bieber, population 312, and Lookout, population 84.
The state’s ranching association decries the crime.
“Wolves are an endangered species. We would never advocate for folks to violate the law,” said Wilbur. “If it did happen, it is shame and I would hope that it is not due to the actions of anyone associated with my organization.”
Wolf advocates are furious that the investigation has, so far, hit a dead end. They say OR-59’s death jeopardizes the recovery of California’s wolves.
“It’s so important to stop this kind of pattern,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sometimes people think, mistakenly, that they’re killing an animal for the right reason.”
“With the reward,” she said, “we’re hoping it will spur more people to come forward.”