When I first spoke with Brian Ehler, Wildlife Biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G) in Lassen County, he was having a conversation with a red-tailed hawk. It took me a second to figure out he wasn’t talking to me.
“Hey, back off a little,” I heard him say over the phone.
“You OK?” I asked.
“Stop crowding me,” he said.
“Sorry, I just picked up an injured red-tail hawk and I’m driving it to the rehab center. It keeps flying in my face,” he explained, returning to our conversation.
In my estimation, anyone who talks to raptors is worth interviewing. So we arranged to meet in Susanville on Friday evening after his day in the field.
I head to Northern California for the weekend to be near Oregon 7. The CDF&G website regularly informs the public of Journey’s whereabouts and lately he’s been traveling between Lassen and Plumas Counties. My plan is to talk with Brian, spend a night in my cushy B&B and then go hiking, knowing my chance of seeing the only wild wolf in the state of California are nil but it makes for a good excuse to get away.
It takes me five minutes to walk from the Roseberry House B&B to the Lassen Ale House to meet Brian, a place I’d heard had good micro-brew and better than average bar food, as well as the longest bar in Northern California. This is all correct; the entire place is extremely long, including the bar, and crowded. We find a seat near the pool tables, surprisingly the quietest place in the house. The beer menu rivals any establishment in Ashland (not an easy task) and the meals range from spinach salad to bratwurst. I choose the fish and chips. Brian, who says he’s never been much of a hunter, that he prefers getting his meat from a store, orders a burger and fries. We drink beer, eat and talk about Oregon 7 and other critters that Brian oversees here in Lassen County.
Brian was raised in the town of Woodland, 20 miles north of Sacramento. The town was once known for their tomatoes, but houses now cover the tomato fields. Brian went to school at UC Davis where he studied Behavioral Ecology. He’s worked for the CDF&G for five years. Although unsure what his long term plans are, at 32, he has a bright future ahead of him no matter where he ends up. He tells me he enjoys his job and feels that California is a pretty progressive place as far as wildlife goes.
But he also says, “People are pretty negative about Oregon 7 in this part of the state.” And that there is a lot of misinformation about wolves; fears they will harm humans and eat all the livestock, the typical concerns. He also says that a few people have told him they would shoot Oregon 7 if given the opportunity. When he hears this, Brian tries to impress upon these individuals that they would be breaking a federal law and besides, Oregon 7 hasn’t done anything wrong.
So far, our wandering wolf has been implicated in zero livestock depredations, even though he’s often in close proximity to cattle and calves. Brian and I talk about what Journey is eating out there. He tells me that two adult deer carcasses were located near clusters of GPS readings emitted from Oregon 7’s collar. No one knows if these deer were killed by our wolf or found dead and scavenged upon. We surmise that he’s also eating rabbits and other small mammals and perhaps road kill, although the GPS readings are not in abundance around roads. While Journey has crossed several major thoroughfares, he seems to have the good sense not to hang around them.
Only a few have seen Oregon 7 since he left Northeast Oregon in September 2011. He’s been in California for six months now. Two photos have been taken of him, one in Butte Falls with a trail camera and the second in Modoc County in May. As Brian says, “He’s like a ghost.” I’m surprised to learn that here in Lassen County, where Journey has spent a lot of time, Brian has not had more than a couple of phone calls about him. Ranchers are the ones who verbalize the most concern, but as Brian says they often see a problem before it exists.
I ask of the chances of Journey being caught in a trap, and Brian explains that leg-hold trapping has been illegal in California for several years now. He says that “California is under high scrutiny from the public,” regarding wildlife issues, which led to a ban on trapping. My own research shows that Proposition 4, a prohibition on trapping fur-bearing animals was passed in 1998. With the work of some very active anti-trapping organizations (including Trap Free Oregon, Trap Free New Mexico, Idahoans Against Trapping, Predator Defense and Footloose Montana ) perhaps in the future the rest of the western states will catch up with California in this regard.
Brian also points out that there is no cougar hunting in California, although once a lion kills livestock the cat is automatically targeted for lethal removal. We talk about Wildlife Services in the area and Brian says they work closely with Fish and Game. He’s read the recent write-ups on the infamous agency but believes they do some positive work, at least in his area. He tells me the WS people he deals with are proactive in teaching people to prevent problems with animals, including skunks, raccoons, lions and bears. But WS agents do kill coyotes, lots of them. Seems to me everyone kills coyotes, randomly and without restriction. Brian did say that the local coyotes seem to be getting smarter. When lured in by amateur coyote killers (using an MP3 player or other device to broadcast coyote howls) and the hunter misses his mark, the wily canine quickly learns to stay away when it hears the recording.
California is proactive with wildlife in many ways, and this attitude could have a positive affect on wolves if they repopulate here. Speaking about black bears, Brian explains that his agency will not issue permits to kill them if complaining humans don’t implement non-lethal strategies to prevent problems. Trees, the inner cambium being a food source, can be surrounded by wire to keep bears away. And honey producers must implement electric fencing and other strategies to prevent theft by bears. Residents who report bears getting into their trash are made responsible for taking their garbage to the dump and keeping their area free of attractants. Also, poaching has been greatly decreased due to efforts by Fish and Game since the 1980s, allowing bear populations to increase.
When I ask Brian if he believes wolves, following the lead of Oregon 7, will repopulate Northern California, he says, “We may have a pack or two, most likely migrants from Oregon, but its doubtful the numbers will be high.” For one thing, he explains, wolves have not been populous in this area in the past. Also, there aren’t many deer and elk here, the primary food source for wolves. But he adds that elk numbers in Northern California are rising, so perhaps in twenty or thirty years, things could change and the ghostlike Oregon 7 will have started a trend for wolves to disperse into this neck of the woods.
If wolves do end up in forming packs in California, I hope the people who oversee them will all be as knowledgeable, unbiased, and concerned as Brian Ehler. In a progressive state, with progressive leaders, wolves could have the chance to regain their rightful place in the environment.