The California Wolf Center is in the hills of Julian, an apple-growing district about an hour north-east of San Diego. Staff and volunteers work hard to restore wolf numbers and rescue their reputation.
Thousands of years of fear, myth, fairytales and even cartoon shows depicting the big bad wolf chasing little pigs have left a lasting impression.
Wolves, it seems, don’t even like pork. They prefer elk and bison, which is why wolf jaws are ridiculously powerful.
When visitors reach the gates of the California Center they are met by a ranger with an introductory lecture.
Only then do you get to see any wolves.
But if visitors are hoping for a photo of themselves patting a wolf, this is not the place. The wolves here have restricted contact with humans, for a very good reason. People are not to be trusted.
The history of wolves in America is long and bloody.
By the 1920s, United States government bounties had seen the eradication of wolves in almost every state in the Union.
Today many ranchers still consider wolves a threat to livestock, and efforts to reintroduce them to the wild have been met with strong resistance.
Recently, a pack of seven Rocky Mountain grey wolves was confirmed to be living in northern California.
The Rocky Mountain grey was once hunted to the brink of extinction.
Within the borders of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and parts of neighbouring Idaho there are about 5000 wolves now, thanks to conservation efforts and re-introduction programs that started in the 1970s.
The Mexican grey or lobo wolf, which is indigenous to Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, is among the rarest animals on the planet.
By the 1970s only seven remained in captivity. In 1998, 11 were released into the wild in Arizona.
Today there are more than 100 in the wild and about 300 in captive breeding programs.
Most of the California Wolf Center’s wolves are “off exhibit” which means they have minimal contact with humans, even with the staff.
These are the wolves that breed future release animals. The other wolves are the centre’s “ambassador wolves”, the ones visitors are allowed to meet.
Usually wolves are shy, but today they are curious and keen to mark out their territory. They do this by rubbing their faces along the fence line, leaving scent as a warning.
Because of their natural shyness, wolves don’t engage in much eye contact with humans. They tend to focus on something just to the side of you, smelling whatever it is, their noses in the air.
If you can manage to hold their glance, even for just a few seconds, it’s a rare and precious moment.
It is hard to understand why anyone would hunt wolves for pleasure but it does happen in some states in America.
For ranchers with concerns about livestock, it’s part of California Wolf Center’s director of volunteers Kim Carey’s job to not just show that it is possible for farming to co-exist with wolves but that it is beneficial to the environment.
Wolves’ ecological role
As an apex predator, wolves play a vital ecological role. They engineer biodiversity, provide balance, and remove weak and injured animals from herds of elk and deer, making wild herds stronger over time.
For example, in Yellowstone National Park where wolves have been for about 20 years, the forests are more diverse. Elk no longer remain at water holes for long, destroying vegetation. They move on, allowing regrowth, which allows other animals to thrive.
“The thinking is that because wolves have been bred in captivity they’re more likely to kill sheep and cattle but that’s not the case,” Kim says.
“We’ve been able to work with a couple of ranchers using various methods to help protect their livestock. When we demonstrate that these methods work, they come on board and help to spread the word.”
The methods include guard dogs, range riders and flagged fencing systems. The range of methods has kept livestock kills low. But wolves are smart and not all these methods work all the time.
Many ranchers demand compensation for losses.
“Science doesn’t regard the wolf as recovered,’’ she says. “We want people to know that, and also understand that wolves don’t pose a threat to people.”
Story: Barbara Heggen
Published in RoyalAuto Apr 2016
THE WOLF’S TRAGIC HISTORY
Estimates vary, but up to two million wolves once roamed throughout the northern hemisphere.
Wolves come in three varieties. The grey wolf, also known as the timber wolf or canis lupus, is the most common and best known. While grey wolves still live in Alaska, Canada and Asia they have become extinct in much of western Europe, Mexico and most parts of the United States.
The grey wolf is the biggest non-domestic member of the dog family.
In America, recovery efforts by volunteers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have brought the numbers back from fewer than 300 in the 1970s to more than 4000 today.
The red wolf (canis rufus) was once found throughout what is now the southeastern United States. It is smaller than the grey wolf.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature regards the red wolf as critically endangered.
The Abyssinian wolf (canis simensis) roams the highlands of Ethiopia.
A reservation is needed to visit the California Wolf Center. To book, go to californiawolfcenter.org
More on visiting California
More information on Yellowstone
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