Many California residents are aware that giant bears roamed our state for many thousands of years, but were driven to extinction by the early 1920s. California is, after all, the Bear State, with the California Grizzly dominating the state flag and its name preserved in many localities within our borders, including at least three in Kern County: Bear Mountain, Bear Valley and Grizzly Gulch near Havilah. There was another apex predator that once lived throughout much of California and disappeared at about the same time, but it has left much less of a trace. This missing carnivore is the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus).
This iconic creature not only occupied many parts of the state, it lived in the Tehachapi Mountains, and its name is remembered in the White Wolf Grade, White Wolf Fault, and the White Wolf area on the west side of Bear Mountain. This region, forming one of the larger examples of the lesser valleys in the Tehachapi Mountains, can be found where Highway 223 diverges from Highway 58 and heads southwest towards the town of Arvin. The Bakersfield National Veterans Cemetery is located in a portion of the White Wolf area.
This name stems from the fact that cowboys from the sprawling Tejon Ranch used to encounter packs of white wolves in the area, reportedly as late as the 1880s. Although the species is officially known as Grey Wolves, the name isn't a description of all individuals, and Gray Wolves can range from coal black to snowy white. Apparently there were a couple of packs in the area of Bear Mountain and the valley near its base that were predominantly white.
Look at the photos on this page, and let that sink in. . . packs of white wolves once lived in the vicinity of the Arvin cutoff. Had they persisted, you might occasionally see one on the familiar drive to Bakersfield, or on a side trip on Highway 223 (Bear Mountain Boulevard) to the DMV in Arvin. Because wolves eat primarily elk and deer, in pre-contact times these local wolves may have fed at times on the large herds of Tule Elk found on the San Joaquin Valley floor.
There have been some who have speculated that wolves must have had an only marginal presence within California, and disappeared quickly. However, a recent 2013 study by Sonoma State University suggests otherwise. The Anthropology Studies Center at SSU undertook an analysis to "Review ethnographic and archaeological literature to locate potential markers for the presence of wolf. The primary focus was identifying indigenous languages that had words for wolf, and, in particular, separate words for "wolf," "coyote," and "dog."
Among the 15 different tribal languages that included distinct words for wolf, coyote and dog, was our own Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) language of the Tehachapi Mountains. In Nüwa the wolf is referred to -- likely because of its large size and not any tendency to consume humans -- as Nüwa KA'A-gud, meaning "maneater." Coyote is known as si-NAH-av dog as pu-guz.
The Kawaiisu were not an especially far-travelling people and lived almost entirely within the borders of Kern County, and yet they saw or heard wolves regularly enough to have had a common name for them.
This study was especially significant for a couple of reasons. One is that the tangible remains of the California wolf population is so scant: while there are dozens of California Grizzly skins, skulls and other body parts in museum collections, there are only two verifiable wolf specimens, both of them at U.C. Berkeley. Because many early settlers and explorers referred to coyotes as "prairie-wolves," some of their firsthand accounts mentioning wolves are suspect. However, if Indian tribes had words that clearly distinguished between wolves, coyotes and dogs, it indicates that they were aware of the differences between them and knew a wolf when they saw one.
The second reason the SSU report was timely is for this simple reason: the Gray Wolf seems destined to return to California. Wolves have been re-colonizing former habitat in the West, including Oregon. In early 2012, a young male radio-collared wolf from an Oregon pack, known to biologists as "OR-7" crossed into California and spent weeks here before returning back across the border to Oregon. This wolf, christened "Journey" by some who followed his progress on the internet, was the first wolf to walk on California soil in 90 years -- the last two documented wolves consisted of one that was caught in a trap in San Bernardino County in 1922 and another in Lassen County in 1924.
The California Department of Fish and Game considers wolf reintroduction in California to be so inevitable that the CDFG commissioned a 2011 study modeling the likely methods and impacts of wolf re-establishment, and estimated that the state could support more than 400 wolves in more remote regions.
So it seems that in the not-too-distant future, you wouldn't have to go to Yellowstone, Minnesota or Alaska to hear the howl of a wolf, but could stay right here in the Golden State and hear the mesmerizing howls of wolves, perhaps even in iconic areas like Yosemite National Park. Naturally, when the wolf returns there will be conflict -- much of the state is no longer suitable wolf habitat -- and likely there will be some livestock predation for which ranchers will need compensation, but these obstacles are not insurmountable and can be worked out if people use fairness, good will and cooperation. And I'll just keep imagining the white wolves that once ran and howled on the west side of Bear Mountain. . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: email@example.com