On June 30 a 75-pound gray wolf was captured in Lassen County in northeastern California. The state veterinarian on hand confirmed the female had recently given birth.
The next day biologists discovered pup tracks on a nearby dusty road right in line with a U.S. Forest Service trail cam. Once the images were examined, the presence of the Lassen Pack was confirmed, documenting the second wolf pack in California since the species was wiped out about 100 years ago.
For wolf haters, it’s a delicious bit of schadenfreude, all those tofu-loving greenies in Cali finally getting theirs. For wolf lovers — these are the only camps in this conversation, right? — it’s another sign of recovery for one of the West’s iconic predators.
At the center of the discovery was someone wildlife types in the Flathead know quite well: Kent Laudon.
Laudon worked as a wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for 11 years. During his time based in FWP’s Kalispell office, he documented the region’s population boom from 12 packs when he started to 64 at the population’s peak. The numbers eventually dropped due to hunting and other control measures. Still, even at the high point, Laudon said there was only about one wolf for every 24 square miles in the region, and he excluded from his calculation obvious non-wolf habitat such as Flathead Lake and the rocks and ice of Glacier National Park.
Two years ago he left Montana to take a position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working with Mexican gray wolves in Arizona. And just a few months ago he moved again, taking a newly created position in California, a state wolves were just beginning to recolonize.
It was Laudon’s crew that captured the Lassen wolf and then discovered those pup tracks in full view of the trail cam.
In 2011 a young male wolf, OR-7, left his pack in northeastern Oregon and started wandering. As he trekked in search of a mate, OR-7 became the first wolf in Oregon west of the Cascade Range in 60 years. As he ventured farther south, he became the first in California since 1924. OR-7 eventually found a mate back in Oregon, forming the Rogue Pack. The male in the Lassen Pack is one of OR-7’s offspring.
Laudon has done a bit of wandering, too. When we spoke on the phone the other day, he said this month — though he can’t be sure of the date — will mark the 20th year he has worked with wolves. His first job was in Idaho, working for the Nez Perce Tribe, just two years after wolves were reintroduced in the Bitterroot/Selway Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park.
There were only three packs on the ground that first year, Laudon said, and six the next year.
His work in California is reminiscent of those early years in the Rockies when wolves were scarce. He remembers his time in Montana, with packs that had home ranges up to 200 square miles. Laudon’s job was to sort out exactly where in that haystack the pack had denned up to raise pups.
“Two hundred square miles and somewhere there are pups,” Laudon said. “Figuring that out is just a bunch of fun.”
Wolves have come full circle now. While there remains debate about some aspects of wolf management, the animals are recovered in the Northern Rockies. Wolves are one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. We’ve demonstrated we know how to recover wolves. The tricky part is learning to manage the humans who live with and around them.
“It’s almost not even about wolves anymore,” Laudon said. “It’s about people and getting that part right. In California this is really, really new. We’ve got a chance to get that community part right.”