When Europeans arrived in North America, there were 2 million wolves, including about 380,000 wolves in what became the western United States, scientists say.

Pioneers, settlers and cattlemen feared the predators. Gray wolves were wiped out in California by the mid-1920s and all but exterminated in 48 states by the 1930s. In 2014, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife added gray wolves to the state's endangered species list.

Now gray wolves are returning to California, and they are coming as far south as the Lake Tahoe area. One female gray wolf from Oregon wearing a radio collar recently traveled more than 600 miles in the Golden State. She’s still here, and she’s been tracked as far south as Boreal Mountain near Interstate 80 in Nevada County.

Wildlife advocates hope to see wolves continue to repopulate suitable habitat areas up and down the entire Sierra Nevada range.

But the Trump administration is now exploring the removal of federal endangered species protections for gray wolves. A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday the agency plans to publish a proposal to revise protected status for gray wolves by the end of this year. The federal Fish and Wildlife agency operates under direction of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Gray wolves in California

New families of wolves were reported in Siskiyou County near the Oregon border in August 2015 and in Lassen and Plumas counties in June 2017.

The wolf called OR-54 that trekked as far south as the Truckee area was there in early June, Amaroq Weiss, a designated West Coast Wolf Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Thursday.

OR-54 is from a wolf pack called the Rogue Pack, which is based in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, between Crater Lake and Ashland in Oregon.

She was trapped and radio-collared by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in the Wood River Valley in southwest Oregon on Oct. 3, 2017, said Weiss, who is based in Sonoma County.

Biologists believe OR-54 is descended from a male wolf called OR-7, whose parents originated in Idaho. They started their own pack, the Imnaha Pack, in 2008 in northeast Oregon.

OR-7 visited California in December 2011 and is believed to be the first known recorded wild wolf to set foot in California since 1924, Weiss said.

When OR-7 was in California in 2011 and 2012, he wandered throughout seven of California’s northeasternmost counties, Siskiyou, Modoc, Lassen, Shasta, Plumas, Tehama, Butte.

Good wolf habitat

“The cool story is that OR-54 is another wolf that has decided that California is good wolf country,” Weiss said. “Scientists over two decades have evaluated and studied parts of northern California and determined there are still lots of great places for wolves.”

A map from a December 2016 state Fish and Wildlife conservation plan shows potentially suitable habitat for wolves all along the 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada range, the rock-and-forest “The wolves (are) proving the scientists right,” she said. “They don’t do it with science of course. They’re using their instincts. They put their noses in the air, they smell where there’s elk and deer, and they sense where there’s good water sources.”

Wandering, wolves like OR-54 will figure out where there are not a lot of people, where they will be left alone, so as they’re traveling, they’re checking out landscapes and looking for signs of other wolves, and they’re looking for mates, food sources and a good place to call home, Weiss said.

In 1995-96, some wolves were reintroduced by the federal government in Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho, Weiss said. The great grandparents or great-great grandparents of OR-54 were part of that central Idaho group of reintroduced wolves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies are not reintroducing wolves anywhere in Washington, Oregon or California, Weiss said.

“What’s going on is natural recovery through natural dispersal,” Weiss said. “There is no aggressive, human-managed reintroduction in Oregon or Washington or California.”

Why do wolves migrate?

Wolves tend to stay with their packs until they are 2 or 3, Weiss said. Then they go out to find a mate and to establish their own pack and territory of their own.

Individual wolves probably started heading west out of Idaho instead of east or south because the area where they were was beginning to fill in with other wolf packs,” Weiss said. “So they venture out into areas that are uninhabited by other wolf packs.“

Wolf pack territory size can vary from about 40 square miles in places with lots of wolves and lots of deer, like Minnesota, to 250 or 350 square miles in places like the northern Rockies in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and also in northeast Washington, Weiss said. In the Arctic, wolf pack territories can be as large as 1,000 square miles.

When top predators are killed their ecosystems are impoverished, Weiss said. Having these top predators back helps restore nature and relationships in healthy functioning ecosystems.

In the early 1900s, the federal government began a program to eradicate predators like wolves across the United States. Wolves were killed by the hundreds of thousands. The only place wolves still lived by the 1970s, when the Endangered Species Act passed, was in far northeastern Minnesota.

Up in Oregon

John Stephenson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who trapped and radio-collared OR-54, said in a phone interview Thursday he couldn’t say whether the increasing mobility and activity of gray wolves in Oregon and California was good news or bad,

“It’s our responsibility to manage them and put collars on them and keep tabs on the different packs,” he said. “The livestock folks appreciate us keeping track of them.”

Stephenson said he was in Jackson County.

“We’re up here on a cattle ranch, trying to keep track of the Rogue Pack,” Stephenson said. “It’s a disappointment this collared wolf has gone down to California, but we were expecting it. She was a year, a year-and-half old. She's a lone animal down there and she's moving around a lot.”

Having a collared wolf in a pack helps to keep track of a larger number of wolves, Stephenson said.

Asked about his agency’s announcement about exploring removal of federal endangered species protections for gray wolves, Stephenson said, “Right that just did come out today. Given the way the population has expanded and done well, it might be time for a change. It’s not for me to say. I’m the guy out in the field just trying to keep track of them and work with our livestock producers to minimize problems.”

Federal delisting of wolves

With the gray wolf’s recovery goals exceeded, the federal Fish and Wildlife service proposed delisting the species throughout the remainder of its range in 2013 under the Obama administration, the agency’s current spokesman said.

“Unfortunately, the delisting of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region was successfully overturned by the courts,” Gavin Shire, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Thursday.

Shire emphasized that at this stage the federal agency is gathering data from individual states, which have the most information on their numbers. Federal authorities have made no determination to do anything further at this stage.

“If there is to be any further action,” Shire said, “we would expect to do so by the end of the year.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.