In early 2012, a lone gray wolf labeled OR7 made history as the first wolf to walk into California in 90 years. Leaving his pack in northeast Oregon, OR7 (some renamed him “Journey”) meandered through Northern California.
As wolves begin a slow comeback to California and discussion about their future begins, researchers from Sonoma State University have decided to look the other direction — to wolves in California’s past.
Drawing upon anthropology and archaeology, the study — the pre-contact distribution of canis lupus in California — looks into the historical distribution of gray wolves across California prior to European settlement.
“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.”
The researchers found that 15 Native American languages across California use separate and distinct words for wolf, dog and coyote, indicating their range and presence across the state. One such group is the Ohlone people who, in their San Francisco dialect, referred to the wolf as ‘maial.’
There are also oral traditions in five languages where wolves appear as either a deity or as part of ceremony or ancestral history. For example, in the traditions of the Southern Paiute, a people who traditionally lived in parts of the Mojave desert and southeastern California, the wolf is a creator deity. Three Northern California indigenous groups — the Hoopa, Karok and Chilula — used wolf fur as part of ceremonial regalia.
Four Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco and Santa Clara — have shown archaeological evidence of the presence of wolves, including in the Emeryville Shellmound complex, where bones excavated in the early 1900s were recently confirmed as wolf remains.
Sonoma State University staff archaeologist Michael Newland wrote in a press release that the study will contribute to identifying other research areas and broaden understanding of the historical distribution, role and cultural significance of wolves in California.
In California, like much of the western United States, extirpation of wolves began shortly after European settlement. In recent years, wolves have begun returning to several states and have been reintroduced to sites such as Yellowstone National Park.
The report comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers removing gray wolves from the federal endangered species list. Gray wolves are not protected under California’s Endangered Species Act however this proposal is being considered and an outcome is expected later this year. Alessandra Bergamin is a Bay Nature editorial intern.