Federal wildlife officials are continuing to investigate the poaching of an endangered gray wolf that crossed from Oregon into northern California in late 2018.
The wolf, a yearling male labeled OR-59, was born in April 2017 in northeast Oregon before dispersing into Modoc County, Calif., on Dec. 2, 2018. Three days later, the wolf was spotted by a rancher scavenging on a calf that had died of natural causes, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
OR-59 was killed on Dec. 9 by a single gunshot wound from a .22-caliber rifle. Wolves are listed as endangered in California.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered $2,500 for information leading to a conviction in the case. The culprit could receive a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group, has also offered an additional $5,000 for information leading to a conviction.
“This loss is a terrible blow to wolf conservation in California,” said Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate for the organization. “It underscores why our endangered wolves need the strongest possible protection at both state and federal levels.”
Pam Bierce, a spokeswoman for the USFWS, said the agency’s investigation into the shooting has been ongoing for over a year.
“There were early leads that have since been exhausted, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to broaden our inquiry by seeking information from the public by offering a reward,” Bierce explained.
California has fewer than a dozen wolves residing in the state and just one active pack, the Lassen pack, which was first documented in 2017. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated 15 reports of wolf attacks on livestock in 2019 — five of which were confirmed.
Oregon, by contrast, has at least 137 wolves as of the most recent count at the end of 2018. Wolves were removed from the state endangered species list east of highways 395, 78 and 95 in November 2015, which allows them to be killed for repeatedly preying on livestock under certain conditions. The species remains federally protected in Western Oregon.
OR-59 was originally part of a group of wolves southwest of La Grande, Ore., though it was never formally recognized as a pack. The group’s breeding female — OR-59’s mother — was shot by an elk hunter in 2017 in the Starkey Wildlife Management Unit. The man claimed he shot the wolf in self-defense, and the Union County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fitted OR-59 with a GPS collar in February 2018, using it to monitor his journey across the state.
It is not unprecedented for wolves to disperse from packs in northeast Oregon and move into California. Oregon’s famous wandering wolf, OR-7, did the same thing when he left the Imnaha pack in Wallowa County and traveled more than 1,000 miles southwest across state lines, before returning to Southern Oregon where he established what is now the Rogue pack in Jackson and Klamath counties.
As wolves continue to reoccupy historic habitat in the West, the Trump administration has proposed delisting the species entirely across the lower 48 states. Wildlife advocates staunchly oppose the move.