December 30, 2015

California ranchers concerned about the gray wolf

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

Last week, The Sacramento Bee reported on the concerns of ranchers in Northern California’s Siskiyou County about how to deal with the influx of the gray wolf into the state, especially in light of the California Fish and Game Commission’s recent decision to protect the wolf under the California Endangered Species Act. The ranchers’ jitters also follow upon the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s determination that a calf kill last month in the same county was probably caused by a gray wolf newly arrived from Oregon. Such direct predation can be a real cost for ranchers, each heifer yearling potentially worth thousands of dollars.  But the negative economic consequences that the wolf’s presence brings to California ranchers extend well beyond direct kills. As the Bee article notes, “just having a [wolf] pack nearby stresses cattle to the point where heifers have fewer or less healthy calves,” and where “beef steers . . . lose weight, fetching a lower price at the auction house.”

Unfortunately for California ranchers, the wolf’s listing under the state endangered species law probably means that a balanced wolf management plan is impossible. Prior to the listing, the wolf was considered a “nongame mammal” under California law.*** Permits can be issued to destroy such mammals when they pose a real threat to crops or to livestock. In contrast, a species protected under the California Endangered Species Act generally may not be destroyed unless the destruction is for educational, scientific, or management purposes, or is otherwise incidental to a lawful activity. And it may be difficult for a rancher to argue that the deliberate destruction of a livestock-eating wolf is merely “incidental” to the normal operation of a ranching business (in contrast to, say, the incidental environmental impacts of livestock grazing). And even if a take permit were theoretically available, the requirement that any take be “fully mitigated” would make such a permit prohibitively expensive.

Wolf proponents have argued that legal, nonlethal management techniques such as fladry (flags attached to fencing that may frighten away the wolves) are available to deal with problem wolves. But as one rancher quoted in the Bee article explains, “This crazy stuff they talk about putting the flags up and all that, that’s totally, completely impossible. We can’t have a rider that spends his full life up there.” The same rancher goes on to explain how, regardless of any management techniques, the presence of wolves takes a real emotional toll on human beings. “You better believe we are [nervous]. You better believe we are. You don’t know what [the wolves are] going to do. You just don’t know.”

In response, the article quotes a prominent wolf advocate contending that the ranchers’ concerns are overblown. “Change is part of the world. Everybody adapts to change. Everybody that has a business adapts to change, otherwise you go out of business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rancher or you own a dry cleaner in a city. That’s part of a successful business model.” Would this attitude be the same if it were pointed out that change is also a part of the natural environment, and that the successful “business” model of evolution ensures that species either adapt or “go out of business”? I suspect not.

***Although any gray wolf found in California is also protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting such wolves, having determined that they are not, in fact, in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range. Now, one might ask, how then could California come to the opposite conclusion in protecting the wolf under the state version of the same law? The answer is that the California Fish and Game Commission interprets the state act’s language—which, by the way, is in relevant part identical to the federal act’s phrasing—as forbidding consideration of the status of the species outside California. In other words, in deciding whether to protect the gray wolf, the Commission looked only to how the wolf is doing in California. And, given that at the time the Commission made its listing decision, only one individual gray wolf was known to exist in the state, the agency had an easy time determining that the California wolf population (namely, one wolf) was in danger of extinction throughout its “[California] range.”

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California Cattlemen’s Association v. California Fish and Game Commission

Based on the sighting of a lone non-native gray wolf in California, the state Fish and Game Commission listed the gray wolf species under the California Endangered Species Act, effective January 1, 2017. On behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and their members, PLF sued to invalidate this illegal listing, which protects a non-native species at the expense of native species, ignores the growing wolf populations outside California, and upends a multi-year collaborative process among government, environmental, and ranching interests to balance wolf protection with livestock protection. 

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