Study: until the 20th century, wolves inhabited much of California

Study results are relevant to decision whether to put wolves under the state’s ESA-

San Francisco. There are those who say the gray wolf had just a marginal presence in California before it was killed off in the 1920s. However, the Sonoma State University Anthropological Studies Center has now shown there was a widespread presence of wolves in California. This report comes at an important time. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is deciding whether to protect the animals under the state’s Endangered Species Act.

The study found linguistic and cultural evidence that indigenous peoples across California had words for wolf. They also performed rituals featuring wolves in some fashion. At least fifteen of California’s indigenous languages have distinct words for “wolf,” “coyote” and “dog,” and in the oral traditions of five languages, wolves appear as deities or a part of ceremony or ancestral history.

“In modern times we talk about wolves being ecologically important,” said Amaroq Weiss, a West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, “but this research shows us that wolves have been a part of California’s cultural heritage for thousands of years.”

Previous research had compiled historical accounts of sightings of wolves in California by European explorers and settlers, and these accounts were from locations scattered widely across the state. But because it was not always clear that observers were familiar with, and could distinguish between, wolves, coyotes and dogs, the reliability of such accounts had been called into question. The new study’s linguistic analysis honed in on whether indigenous people distinguished between these three canids, and the study’s examination of the role ascribed to wolves in cultural stories and traditions revealed unique treatment of the wolf — quite distinct from roles or characteristics assigned to coyotes or dogs.

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This story was based on a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.





  1. Wolfy Avatar

    Our capacity to totally alter or disrupt large swathes of intact ecosystems astounds (scares?) me. I’m further astounded by those that deny that we could ever be that destructive and continue to be. Wolves and other capstone species were the first to go; bees and birds are following. Many states are running out of water. When is enough enough? When do we reverse this trend?

    1. JB Avatar


      I spent most of yesterday scouting photo locations in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and I will agree with your assessment about our capacity to disrupt. I saw so many non-native plants…and then there are the earth worms, the roads, the re-routing of drainages, the canal, etc. One wonders what this place would’ve looked like in pre-Columbian times…?

      1. Wolfy Avatar

        Indeed, many of our parks are formed from land that no one wants anymore. Most of the ecological, cultural, and resource values have already been stripped away. The forgotten waste land re-vegetates and we call it “pristine”. Wonder when downtown Detroit will become a “park”?

    2. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      Our capacity to totally alter or disrupt large swathes of intact ecosystems

      I’ve just started to read Michael Williams’s book “Deforesting the Earth:From Prehistory to Global Crisis, An Abridgment”

      and he debunks the myth about ‘pristine’ forest ecosystems in Americas before 1492 – pretty interesting stuff…

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Get this You can use the relatively new science of Mitochondrial DNA analysis top make population projections ,. whether the animal beimg analyzed is from a current living population or a departed or even extinct population ( providing you have good source DNA ).

    Well, there were enough surviving wolf pelts and skulls from BEFORE the Great Extirpation of Grey Wolves in the Northern Rockies began ~ 1880 to make a scientific census possible. The Smithsonian had a lot of material in storage.

    In order to encapsulate the amount of mitochondrial ( maternal) DNA genetic variance detected in the wolf specimens tested, the population was estimated to be in the range of 350,000 to 400,000 animals.

    Today that same wolf range has about 6,000 animals, from the Great Lakes to Cascadia and of course the Yellowstone sphere.

    This was reported in the Yellowstone Science Quarterly a couple years ago, but I’m writing from memory.

    The same M-DNA study should be done of Pre-Extirpation Great Basin-California wolves if possible . It would likely reveal a similar staggering number.

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      Estimates in the hundreds of thousands seem a tad outlandish, given what is currently understood about wolf carrying capacity . . .

      But then, there may be other “anomalies” to reconcile that stretch into recorded history:

      “Wolf Point – A town in Roosevelt County, Montana. One winter in the 1860’s the hunters killed such a large number of wolves that they froze before the skins could be removed. The frozen carcasses were piled up to await the coming of spring and formed such a large pile as to be a landmark for miles around and hunters referred to it as “Wolf Point.” The place is about two miles southwest of the present townsite.”

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Ugh. Just ghoulish, isn’t it. 🙁

      2. Barb Rupers Avatar
        Barb Rupers

        Interesting history, thanks SEAK Mossback.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          Yes I appreciated Seak’s post and the history of it, but I have a hard time getting my head around the kind of savage zeal people took in trying to wipe out these animals – mostly based on mankind’s projection onto them and not reality. The human mind can be dangerous. I And it still exists today, albeit mush less, thankfully.

          1. CodyCoyote Avatar

            Yellowstone Science Quartly , Vol. 19 No. 1 , published 2011.

            ” The annual take of wolves was over 55,000 in Montana alone… ”

            ” More recently, Edward Curnow, whose “The History of the Eradication of the Wolf in Montana” (1969) served for some time as a pri- mary scholarly source text, estimated that in the 1860s there were “several hundred thousand wolves” in the region that would become Montana. He said that the number of wolves killed during the 1860s and 1870s was unknown, but “a con- servative estimate would be over 100,000 per year between 1870 and 1877.”

            On the M-DNA study : ” Based on the time required for the gray wolf to achieve the degree of genetic diversity displayed by this set of specimens, Leonard et al. arrived at a “rough estimate”
            of 380,000 wolves in the western United States”

            1. Ida Lupine Avatar
              Ida Lupine

              How terribly destructive what humans have done to this species.

              This is why while delisting is debatable, hunting them is wrong.

  3. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    More bad news for MN moose.

    49- calves collared
    11- calves die almost immediately due to complications from capture and abandonment
    4 – calves slip slip collars

    Of 34 remaining calves in study
    4- calves killed by bears
    16- calves killed by wolves

    Remainder of story is interesting read. And I guess, based upon numbers, it can be spun either way that wolves are the main culprit, or are taking about what they always have.

    DelGiudice noted that Minnesota had a thriving moose population 10 to 15 years ago when the state’s moose range had roughly the same number of wolves. Wolves clearly aren’t the cause of the steep decline in moose population, he said. But they may now be helping to push the decline a little faster.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      You really can’t say that wolves are ‘pushing the decline’. The decline has been caused by something else, and wolves are just doing what they would do anyway, whether the moose were plentiful or not. Culling wolves to stop the decline of moose, if you don’t know what the real culprit is, hurts both species and in the end won’t solve the real problem.

      Whatever it is that is pushing the decline, humans have done it.

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      You really have to wonder why the role of environmental toxins is never mentioned in the role of wildlife decline. I was reading an article about how the Great Lakes have become an absolute cesspool, a dumping ground for industrial chemicals, human waste loaded with drugs, antibiotics, plastics, and household chemicals such as triclosan. Millions of people dumping their waste into water supplies has got to have some kind of impact. We’re gross!!!! And we need to take a closer look at what we’re doing to the environment, not wolves.

    3. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Sorry! Moderators! This post and replies should belong in ” Do You Have any Interesting Wildlife News.”

  4. mikepost Avatar

    I would rather have a link to the study than CBD’s take on the report. Their history is 50/50.

    Anyone have the report link?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I would too — like a link better. If you can find a link for us that would be great.

    1. mikepost Avatar

      THX Barb….this is the site. The report is interesting but inconclusive in my view. By the authors admission, much more work required before any real judgement can be made about the wolf presence in CA. The biggest issue seems to be that much of the past research just has not considered a wolf presence so the questions were not asked and answered. Also curious that CA Fish & Wildlife Dept were not even consulted. Note that CBD was a funder of this grant along with other “pro-wolf” groups. That is not bad per se but does indicate a potential bias. A valuable first step, but only a first step….

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Thanks Barb,

      It looks like wolves might have ranged to the Mexican border and might have then been what we now call “Mexican wolves,” that rare subspecies.

  5. amaroq weiss Avatar

    A link to the study is provided directly in our press release, via hyperlink. Below is the link to the press release. In the first sentence of the first full paragraph, the word “study” is highlighted — click on that hyperlink and it will take you directly to the full study.

  6. WyoWolfFan Avatar

    There used to be plenty of grizzlies in California as well.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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