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Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2016

Ask the Naturalist: Did Wolves Ever Live in the Bay Area?

by Michael Ellis on May 16, 2016

The wolf OR-7 near the California-Oregon border. (Photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
The wolf OR-7 near the California-Oregon border. (Photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

With all the excitement about wolves returning to California, could you clarify whether they ever lived in the Bay Area’s nine counties? —Oliver

Well, like you and many other readers, Oliver, I am thrilled that one of the most successful terrestrial predators is making a comeback into California. There have been gray wolves (Canis lupus) in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho as long as anyone can remember (and historically throughout much of North America and Mexico). Those populations then expanded into Washington and Oregon during the last 25 years. Just after Christmas in 2011, a radio-collared gray wolf from southern Oregon entered Northern California. It was the first confirmed sighting in our state since 1924! And there is more good news. In August 2015, infrared camera traps in Northern California photographed several frolicking wolf pups. Hopefully, wolves are on their way to repopulating at least part of their original range. But where exactly is that original range?

The Anthropological Studies Center (ASC) at Sonoma State University prepared an assessment of the distribution of the gray wolf prior to contact with Europeans. I draw heavily from their conclusions. They researched several lines of inquiry to determine if indeed there were wolves in the San Francisco Bay region.

First: Is there any physical evidence that wolves were here, such as actual skeletons or perhaps fossil evidence of feeding (bones of prey animals gnawed by wolves)? It is certain that wolves lived in California. They entered North America from Asia via the Bering land bridge like many mammals. The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain bones of at least 19 individual wolves. And locally at the Emeryville shell mounds anthropologists found bones from canids that first were described as being from wolves. However, other researchers have cast doubt on that analysis. They call for additional and different DNA analysis to confirm that these are indeed wolf bones and not from domestic dogs or coyotes.

Second: Did the native people who lived here—the Ohlone, the Pomo, and the Coast Miwok—have specific names for wolves that distinguished them from coyotes, foxes, and even dogs? And did they have myths and oral traditions that included wolves? The Coast Miwok had no specific word for wolves in their language but the Ohlone and the Pomo did. But did they distinguish well between coyotes and wolves? And if wolves were widespread in San Francisco Bay, why didn’t the Coast Miwok mention them?  In some other tribes in California there are no words for wolves (but more than a dozen do have words for wolf). Is this because they weren’t there, or did the anthropologists fail to ask careful questions that would tease out the difference, or were the words lost during mission times?  To be sure, there are wolf legends from many tribes, but the stories could’ve easily been borrowed from other tribal groups.

Third: Did the early European explorers or exploiters mention wolves, and could these visitors be relied upon to discriminate between coyotes and wolves? Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue reported seeing two species of “wolves” in the San Francisco Bay Area when he was here in 1816. The presumption of later historians was that they were wolves and coyotes. But most early nonnative visitors simply lumped all the canids together. Upon the European invasion of California most wolves were quickly poisoned, shot, or trapped right out of existence. In fact there are only two wolf specimens in any natural history collections in California, and those are from the 1900s!

So did packs of wolves once roam Point Reyes, the Valley of the Moon, or Russian Hill? We really cannot say with certainty one way or the other. But it sure would be nice to hear that evening song.

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