Reclaiming the Modoc

The steep walls of the canyon are no barrier, nor is the river. We know they have crossed such before, and they will again. Every year they will come westward in a steady stream, like some new generation of pioneers, but they are not pioneers exactly. The scent of migrating deer and elk will draw them overland through the undulating mountains and valleys, but only the scent of their own kind will make them stay. No one knows where they will re-establish themselves, only that they come with the earnest intent to settle. The place names seem fitting: Elkhorn, Eagle Cap, Umatilla; as does the topography: round-sided peaks, curved valleys, and crevassed buttes full of hiding places. Perhaps they will travel west as far as the spine of the Cascades, then strike southward through the foothills to the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, a bygone heartland, and down to Crater Lake. The Sycan Marsh would be a logical next step — it is rumored they never left — then through the forested homeland of the Klamath Tribes to run the wide-open ponderosa stands of the Modoc Plateau.
But logic doesn’t have much to do with it. Chance will rule. One or two may head southward straight off. Make his or her way to Hart Mountain Refuge, then pick up the scent of an elk herd heading still further south to winter browse in the  Warner Range. And maybe, just maybe, the scent of the migrating elk will have a different scent mingled in with it, another predator following the herd — a possible mate.
If so, wolves may once again set up housekeeping in Modoc County, California, roughly a century after the last known of their kind were slaughtered in the state’s far north, during the early 1920’s.
When wolf howls again ring out through the juniper-studded lava flows, quaking aspen groves, sage-brushed meadows, and palisaded hanging valleys of California’s most northeasterly corner, the sounds will have meaning to others besides the wolves. For the bears, foxes, and eagles of the area, they will mean more carrion to feed on year-round and a probable increase in their numbers. For the coyotes, the howls will mean the boom times are over — wolves have been known to quickly reduce the coyote population in areas they recolonize. For the songbirds, relief from unnaturally high coyote populations will likely mean more survivors. For cougars, the presence of wolves may mean a retreat from the valley to the mountain slopes where wolves can’t compete for lion prey. For the elk and deer, the howls will mean a culling of their  old and sick, and improved food supply for the young and reproducing members of the herd. For the forest, adapted to three million years of wolf occupation, the influence of wolves on local herbivore behavior may improve plant diversity and waterside habitat: some researchers believe the simple fear of wolves among deer and elk can help restore overgrazed streamside vegetation. Watercourses happen to be favorite pathways for wolves.
But for California’s human population, the howls will forecast a storm of controversy.
Signs proclaiming “Modoc County: Where the West Still Lives!” greet visitors to this part of the state. The few towns are still small and quaint, with rustic storefronts and a comfortably slow pace. No superhighways have invaded the landscape, and outside towns, residents still wave at any passing car. At 4,340 square miles, the county is the tenth largest in California, and just slightly smaller than the entire state of Connecticut. With 9,607 residents, there are 2.2 people per square mile in Modoc, roughly half the population density of Mongolia.
Even so, the question of whether or not the west still lives in Modoc is open to debate. Certainly the cowboy mystique of the west lives on in the local fashion, just as ranching dominates the local landscape and politics. But the land here does not live in the same way it did one hundred years ago.
Local officials acknowledge a century of overgrazing and fire suppression has drastically altered Modoc’s ecosystems. According to Bob Schaefer, a California Fish and Game official formerly stationed in the county, Modoc’s juniper numbers have increased 500% since the mid-nineteenth century, taking over former ponderosa pine territory. Sagebrush, once confined to rocky outcrops protected from frequent fires, now dominates meadows where fire-dependent bunchgrasses formerly thrived. The spreading juniper and brush have dried up springs and choked out habitat essential to many species in this arid region. The habitat changes have led to dramatic losses in local wildlife, such as the once-plentiful sage grouse.
Hundreds of feral  horses have invaded the plateau from the Great Basin, and are considered a nuisance by game managers. Meanwhile, the native deer and pronghorn herds remain, though in smaller numbers, while elk have begun  to migrate into the  area from the north  and west.
The three most important pre–Gold Rush influences on the local ecosystems — Native Americans, wolves, and fire — are now for the most part absent. Modoc County once contained homelands of the Modoc, Pit River, and Northern Paiute cultures. The Modoc people lived near the headwaters of the Pit River, in the northernmost part of the area. The Paiute occupied the eastern, Great Basin fringe of the county. The Pit River people thrived in the winding valleys of the river of the same name, at the heart of the region. These people earned their English name through a distinctive hunting technique: river-side pits camouflaged with grass coverings. Early Euro-American explorers considered the pits a nuisance to travel. Peabody B. Reading wrote while crossing the Modoc on his way to the Sacramento Valley in 1843, “To avoid riding [into the pits we] were constantly on the watch. We suppose the Indians made them for the purpose of entrapping game though we see no sign of animals except the wolf.”
Today, there are no more pits (early Euro-Americans prohibited them) nor signs of wolves. But the Modoc lies at the center of what may be the largest swath of remaining wolf habitat west of the Rocky Mountains. A recently published scientific study analyzing prey base, topography, and human development factors found that the area roughly demarcated by Crater Lake National Park in the north, Lassen Volcanic National Park in the south, Mount Shasta and Medicine Lake to the west, and the beginnings of Nevada’s Great Basin to the east could support a population of roughly 200 to 400 wolves. According to Dr. Carlos Carrol, one of the authors of the study, “If wolves successfully disperse to the southern Cascades and the Modoc Plateau, this region may well hold the largest (wolf) subpopulation in the Pacific coastal states.”
The “if” of the Modoc is not one of whether wolves will make it to the Modoc. It is whether they will survive when they get here.
The nearest large population of wolves — about 300 — is in central Idaho. Wolves can travel long distances in search of a mate and suitable habitat. This behavior, “dispersal,” is most common among young wolves. Excellent dispersal abilities likely helped the wolf become the second most widely distributed large mammal on the globe, after humans. Recently, a wolf fitted with a tracking collar on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan made his way to northern Missouri within  12 months.
According to Ed Bangs, Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, every year roughly 60 wolves set out from packs in Idaho, looking for new territory. They will likely find homes outside the state. “There’s no place for them to fit in Idaho anymore,” says Bangs.
Wolves have already been confirmed in Oregon, although it is unknown whether any have mated and denned. Wolves are just as likely to reach California, but their chances of survival in the state may drop precipitously in a few years, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove the wolf from Endangered Species Act protection in much of the west.
Wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming recently reached population targets that can trigger a process to end special federal protections in the northern Rockies and transfer responsibility for wolf management policy to those three states. The USFWS has also proposed simultaneously ending federal protections for wolves in Oregon, California, and other western states.
Environmentalists claim such a proposal is politically motivated and biologically unsound. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re proposing to declare wolves recovered in states they haven’t even shown up in yet,” says Regina Neri, a wolf advocate with the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center. USFWS officials insist they are following the letter of the law. “I’m hoping wolves will be off the ESA in 2004,” says Bangs.
If that happens, wolves will likely have a tough time crossing into California. Oregon’s Endangered Species Act protects wolves, but neither California’s ESA nor the state Fish and Game codes provide any legal protection for wolves. With no status, wolves could be killed or harassed anywhere, at any time of the year, much as coyotes are now. Given the current anti-wolf atmosphere of Modoc County, it seems the wolf will have little chance of recovering its former territory here.
“California (recovery) may take a lot longer than some people want,” says Jerry Cordova, USFWS Gray Wolf Coordinator for Oregon. “You couldn’t truck [wolves] in fast enough, they’d be shot so fast,” warns Schaefer.
Even now, Modoc County anti-wolf politics are heating up. “Wolves would have a devastating effect on the local economy,” says Willy Hagge, Chairperson of the Modoc County Board of Supervisors, referring to Modoc’s ranching industry. Although livestock depredation is a common argument made against wolf recovery around the country, depredation statistics actually appear to exonerate the wolves. One case in point is Montana, a state with over one hundred wolves and thousands of cattle and sheep. In 1999, Montana’s wolves killed fewer than 30 sheep and 20 cattle. Depredations were even fewer in 2000 and 2001. Ironically, Montana’s wolf depredations from 1999 were too few to merit a separate column in the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s sheep depredation statistics. Instead, wolves were relegated to the anonymity of the “Other Predators” column, grouped with such seemingly innocuous species as ravens and pigs. In contrast, Montana’s eagle and bear depredations merit their own separate listings, with 1,000 and 400 sheep (including lambs) lost, respectively.
“No one advocates for the eradication of eagles and bears in Modoc County. But wolves are another story,” says Neri. When asked for the basis for his dire predictions, Hagge admits, “I’m not familiar with the statistics on the livestock depredations in other areas.”
Arguments against wolves may weaken further in the presence of a compensation fund, already in place for several years in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, for any wolf-related livestock losses. According to Nancy Weiss, Western Director of Species Conservation for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, “(Defenders has) already extended our wolf compensation fund for use in northern California to reimburse livestock producers for depredation caused by wolves.” Weiss anticipates wolf depredations in Modoc will be no different from those in the Rockies — a fraction of one percent of all livestock losses in the region. Defenders also manages a “proactive carnivore fund,” used to develop and implement creative non-lethal methods for preventing livestock predation, including the purchase of guard dogs, fencing and radio activated guard (RAG) boxes which detect radio-collared wolves.
Even so, the Modoc county leadership is pressing ahead. “We’re developing a strategy,” says Hagge. “The board is fairly unified in the effort to make the state and federal government aware of our opposition to wolves.” He anticipates action from the board sometime soon, perhaps modeled on the anti-wolf posture taken by a county government just north of Modoc. As Hagge affirms, “We certainly appreciated what the commissioners in (Oregon’s) Klamath (County) did.”
Klamath’s board of commissioners recently passed a resolution banning wolves, though endangered species policy is the jurisdiction of the federal government. One commissioner, commenting on the lack of a legal foundation for the ban, likened the action to the Boston Tea Party. Another, Board Chairman John Elliott, publicly declared his willingness to break the federal law against killing an endangered species: “If I saw a wolf on my property, I’d shoot it, I’d bury it, and I’d shut up about it.”
Hagge brushes aside environmentalists’ assertions that wildlife is really the concern of all California citizens, and all should have a say in deciding the fate of wolves in the state. “Most people in California won’t have to live with wolves. The people of this area certainly aren’t in favor of having wolves coming into the country.”
Others in the region may disagree. According to Joey Silvas of the Illmawi Band of the Pit River tribe, the wolf had both practical use and symbolic meaning for the original people of the Modoc. As Silvas relates, “(The Pit River people) would use (wolf pelts) for regalia, dancing, and for warmth. The wolf was food supply as well.” In traditional Pit River creation stories, the wolf-chief features prominently. In parables for children, the wolf is often a foil to a mischievous coyote. “(Coyote) was looked on as doing things you shouldn’t do. Wolves were looked at as smarter animals.”
Silvas believes most of the Pit River people will welcome the return of the wolves. “They’re going to look at wolves as a part of creation that has come back and is good.”
There is no longer any doubt whether gray wolves will return to California in our time. But the innate strength of this predator has inspired fear in people for centuries and sets the stage for the only real uncertainty concerning the future of wolves in the state: Will Californians tolerate the level of wildness — literally the self-willed power of nature — that the wolf embodies?

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