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Natural Perspectives: The return of vanished species

When Vic and I were growing up, wolves had been extirpated from the lower 48 states and the California sea otter was thought to be essentially extinct.

The last gray wolf in California was killed in Lassen County in 1924. Gray wolves were hunted mercilessly during the early part of the 20th century, and were extirpated from the lower 48 states by 1926.

The list of animals in trouble in California went on. The last jaguar in California was killed in the Palm Springs area in 1860, but the species held on in Arizona until 1969. Tule elk were down to a herd of fewer than 100 by 1873. And pronghorn, once numerous in California, were extirpated by the end of the 1800s.

Grizzly bears used to roam our coast and local mountains. But the last local grizzly was killed in Trabuco Canyon in 1908, and the last grizzly in the state of California was killed in Tulare County in 1922. And yet its image is on our state flag.

The environment was in trouble. By the 1950s, pollution was rampant across the entire country, and wetlands had been drained. And yet people continued to damage the natural world.

Then the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. That seemed to wake people up to the environmental catastrophes that were happening everywhere. What had been a pristine and scantily populated land 200 years earlier was turning into a crowded cesspool.

The first Earth Day in 1970 flipped things around. Some people realized that we are not separate from the ecosystem; we are a component of the ecosystem. They began to educate others. The Earth was our mother, a blue planet that nurtured us and provided us with what we needed. But we were wrecking Mother Earth.

To turn things around, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Land was set aside as wilderness. And biologists began bringing species back from the brink of extinction.

The California sea otter, sometimes called the southern sea otter, once ranged from Oregon to Baja with an estimated population of 16,000. But it was very nearly wiped out. All that remained was a tiny band in the Monterey area.

The population expanded from that small group in Big Sur to 2,400 by 1995, but then the population declined somewhat. The cause is thought to be premature mortality from parasites carried by housecats and opossums. The population then began to grow again, reaching a peak of 2,800 in 2008. Since then, the numbers have once again dipped.

The good news about sea otters is that as their population grows, the more adventurous members of their band explore new territories. Young males are the ones most likely to search for a new place to live.

Early last month, whale watchers off Laguna Beach spotted a lone male sea otter in a kelp bed. It was the first sighting of a sea otter in that area in more than 30 years. A lone male also was spotted in San Diego Bay in October.

These are signs that the sea otter population is recovering. One day, we may have sea otters living once again off the coast of Huntington Beach.

Wolves also are bounding back. Wolves had been almost entirely exterminated from the lower 48 by the mid-1930s. A few wolves ventured down from Canada on occasion, but there wasn't a significant population.

Then a small group of gray wolves was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, bringing wolves back to that area after an absence of about 70 years. The population thrived and expanded its range outside the park. Defenders of Wildlife estimates that the wolf population now is about 5,000 in the lower 48, with 7,000 to 11,200 in Alaska.

The Yellowstone wolves thrived and expanded well beyond the borders of the park, and outside of Wyoming. The status of the gray wolf was downgraded from endangered to threatened last April. The wolf was delisted entirely by Congress in the states of Montana and Idaho, as well as portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah. That meant that controlled hunting was allowed. The slaughter began immediately.

With today's technology and sophisticated weaponry, killing wolves is frighteningly easy. In Idaho, 154 of its 750 wolves were killed within a matter of months. In Montana, 220 of its 550 wolves were marked for death, but since hunters bagged only 100 of them, the hunting season was extended. In Wyoming, there is no specific hunting season. Except for a small area around Yellowstone Park, wolves can be killed year-round because they are considered vermin. The goal of the rancher-dominated Wyoming government is to exterminate 60% of Wyoming's 350 wolves.

Wolves are beloved by some and hated by others. So where can wolves hide from the hunters? One place is California. And just last week, a lone male wolf ventured down from Oregon to California. This is the first wolf in the wild in this state since 1924, a real milestone of the wolf recovery program.

This wolf, known as OR7 by his radio collar, is two and a half years old. He is at the age when young wolves go exploring. He comes from a pack that lives in northeastern Oregon, one of four active packs in that state. OR7 has wandered about 300 miles from where he was collared. No one knows where he is headed, probably not even the wolf himself. He may venture deeper into California, turn east into Nevada, or head back north to a pack in Oregon.

Other wolves may venture south after him. Eventually, he may take a mate. And when the wolves get here, they will be protected.

We live in exciting times with the return of wolves to California and the return of sea otters to southern California. These are just lone wandering males, but they hold out the hope of breeding populations in the future.

But Vic and I draw the line at grizzly bears. We're glad that there is no plan to reintroduce them back to California. We hope that they stay in Yellowstone and don't come back here.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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