SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal officials and an environmental group this week issued rewards totaling $7,500 for the unsolved 2018 killing of an endangered wolf in Modoc County, California’s first wolf poaching investigation since the predators returned to the state.
On Dec. 2, 2018, Oregon wildlife biologists notified California officials that a black-furred yearling male they’d labeled OR-59 had traveled from a pack in northeast Oregon and crossed the state line into Modoc County.
The biologists were able to track its movements because the wolf was wearing a GPS collar, which biologists had put around its neck a few months earlier when they’d trapped it for study in northeast Oregon.
Three days later, the wolf was spotted by a rancher feeding on a calf, which investigators later determined may have died from pneumonia.
Then, on Dec. 9, 2018, Oregon biologists received a “mortality signal” from its collar indicating the wolf had died, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In the year since, California’s wildlife officers have revealed little about the case, including where OR-59’s body was found, how the wolf died or why they found its death suspicious.
In a news release this week announcing a $2,500 federal reward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided more details.
The wolf was shot once with a .22 caliber center-fire rifle along County Road 91 near the small communities of Lookout and Bieber, the wildlife agency said. Officials urged anyone with information about the killing to call 916-569-8444.
On Thursday, the environmental group, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, offered its own reward of $5,000.
“We grieve the senseless and illegal killing of this precious wolf,” Amaroq Weiss, the group’s Petaluma-based wolf advocate said in a written statement. “This loss is a terrible blow to wolf conservation in California. It underscores why our endangered wolves need the strongest possible protection at both state and federal levels.”
OR-7 was the first known wolf to return to California after they were killed off early last century. OR-7, a 2-year-old gray male, had left Oregon’s Imnaha Pack and traveled hundreds of miles to California’s northern border.
He spent months wandering the state before returning to Oregon, finding a mate and starting his own pack. OR-7’s appearance prompted the California Fish and Game Commission to grant gray wolves endangered species protections, over objections from ranchers and big game hunters who fear the predators will harm livestock operations and deer and elk herds.
In the years since OR-7 arrival, around 30 wolves have either passed through, settled or been born in a remote, five-county region about the size of West Virginia in California’s northeastern corner.
Some, like OR-59, wander in as they disperse from packs in Oregon and elsewhere looking for a mate. Most of the wolves have either died or wandered back out of state. But a couple of packs have settled.
The state’s first wolf pack — the Shasta Pack — had pups in Siskiyou County in 2015, but the wolf family disappeared before officials were able to put tracking collars on them.
Just one wolf family — the Lassen Pack — is confirmed to reside in the state. Officials have put tracking collars on two members of the Lassen Pack.
Meanwhile, there have been at least 15 confirmed or probable cases of wolves preying on livestock so far in California, including by members of the Lassen Pack.
In Oregon, wolves have been responsible for more than 130 confirmed livestock “depredation events” since the late 1990s, according to Oregon’s wildlife agency.
OR-7’s family group — the Rogue Pack — has killed several cows and a rancher’s guard dog, according to the agency and local media reports.
In Oregon alone, wildlife officials say at least 15 wolves have been killed illegally in recent years. Environmentalists estimate around two dozen wolves have been illegally killed in Washington since 2008.