A new pack of endangered gray wolves has been discovered in California’s Sequoia National Forest, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last week. The pack, which consists of five individuals, is now the state’s southernmost wolf group.
“California has reached another exciting milestone in gray wolf recovery with the discovery of a new pack in the southern Sierra Nevada,” Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, says in a statement. “This recently detected group of wolves is at least 200 straight-line miles from the nearest known California pack and demonstrates the species’ amazing ability to disperse long distances and take advantage of the state’s plentiful suitable habitat.”
In early July, Michelle Harris and Samantha Winiecki-Love, field scientists with Colibri Ecological Consulting, got the first glimpse of one of the wolves as they worked to restore fire-scorched sequoia groves, per an Instagram post from Harris.
“She paused and started to pace and make these vocalizations,” Harris wrote. “All we could think was, ‘She doesn’t look like a coyote, but she has to be, right?’ She sure didn’t behave like a coyote either. I managed to get some photos through my binoculars before we parted ways.”
The pair drove a little further before continuing on foot, where they noticed massive canine tracks in the ground. After sharing photos and videos of the wolf with large carnivore researchers, they led a team of specialists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to the site.
Biologists collected 12 scat and hair samples from the area for genetic testing, which revealed five individual wolves that had not previously been documented in the state, per the CDFW statement. One of the animals was a direct descendant of OR7, the first wolf to be documented in California in recent history, and the others were her offspring—two males and two females. None of the genetic samples came from an adult male, but the testing indicates the father is a descendent of a pack in the state’s northeast.
Gray wolves are native to California, but they were extirpated from the state around the 1920s, possibly because of hunting and other human activities. By the 1930s, the wolves were wiped out from most of the United States after years of a nation-wide extermination campaign. But following the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the species has slowly been making a comeback across the Western states. In 1974, they gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves were recently delisted in 2020, but that decision was reversed for the contiguous 48 states and Mexico—with the exception of the Northern Rocky Mountain population—in 2022, granting them protections again.
The gray wolf named OR7 entered California from Oregon in 2011, becoming the first wolf in almost 100 years to be recorded in the Golden State. Three years later, gray wolves gained protection under the California Endangered Species Act. California’s first pack in modern history, the Shasta Pack, was established in 2015, but it mysteriously disappeared within months. The recently discovered pack joins about six other known groups of wolves in the state—including two that were just discovered in May 2023.
“I’m still in awe,” wrote Harris on Instagram. “We’ve continued to find tracks in the area, as I’ve been working here weekly. Thank you so much to everyone involved! So neat that CDFW was able to retrieve such detailed information about their genetics!”