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By Ryan Sabalow
Video from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shows 8 wolf pups from the Lassen Pack in Lassen County playing in July 2020. By California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kent Laudon, California’s wolf biologist, knew there was a good chance he’d find the charred carcasses of wolf pups when he crossed through roadblocks outside the town of Westwood to check on the Lassen Pack in person.
“I didn’t know at all what to expect with the pups after that fire came through,” Laudon said.
On Wednesday, Laudon and a federal biologist drove through the scorched timber from the Dixie Fire, following GPS-collar location data to the last known location of the pack’s female.
“It’s all burned. It’s all gone,” he said Thursday in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. “It’s all just standing dead trees.”
Nonetheless, the two biologists got out of the pickup and walked through the burned forest toward the Lassen female’s last collar ping. To their surprise, they found a little meadow with a creek nearby — an oasis of green amid miles of soot and ash.
Laudon heard an alarmed wolf snort in the distance. Not long after they saw a fully grown black male wolf, along with the gray female wearing a GPS collar and another gray wolf, an adult or yearling.
Four pups — one black, the rest gray, and weighing about 40 pounds (about the size of a Brittany spaniel) — could be seen before the wolves bolted at the sight of the two men intruding on their turf.
Laudon had been watching the Dixie Fire burn through the Lassen Pack’s home range for weeks, wondering how many wolves in the small pack had survived the state’s largest wildfire.
GPS-tracking data showed that the pack’s adult female had somehow survived when the fire burned through the area in early August. The data showed that she kept returning to one particular spot, a sign that suggested she may be returning to where pups were staying when she was out hunting.
That’s where Laudon found them Wednesday.
The Lassen Pack’s survival illustrates how even when wildfires burn through a large area — the Dixie Fire alone is close to 1,200 square miles — wildlife finds a way to survive, though inevitably some animals do burn to death or suffer severe burns. Laudon’s agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and its veterinary partners have this year treated several burned bear cubs firefighters and others have rescued.
Laudon said which animals make it through a wildfire often comes down to chance, all hinging on how fast the fire is moving and the terrain.
“I feel it’s total luck,” he said. “You head the wrong direction, you might end up trapped.”
Surrounded by dead cattle killed by Dixie Fire
Now that the fire has burned through their territory, the wolves should have a decent shot at survival, Laudon said.
Burned areas tend to create better habitat for their preferred prey — deer and elk — once vegetation starts to regrow as the fall rains hit, though how well the habitat responds after a fire can depend on how hot the fire was, among other factors, Laudon said.
For now, the wolves appear to have been feeding on a rancher’s cattle that had died nearby in the fire, Laudon said. That was its own gruesome scene. Laudon described it as around two dozen cattle — including cow-calf pairs huddled together — dead in a copse of trees that had burned over.
The Lassen Pack first settled down in Lassen and Plumas counties in 2017 and for much of that time, it was the only wolf pack in California.
Recently, however, two other wolves have settled down and had pups in Siskiyou County. They’re called the “Whaleback Pack,” named for a peak north of Mount Shasta that looks like the hump of a humpback whale.
Laudon said the Whaleback Pack has so far survived the fires that have burned through the edges of its home range — the 26,409 acre Lava Fire and the 70,897-acre Antelope Fire being the two largest.
In all, close to 50 wolves have passed through, settled or been born in a remote, five-county region about the size of West Virginia in California’s northeastern corner since OR7 in 2011 became the first known wolf to enter the state since they were exterminated early last century.
OR7’s arrival prompted California regulators to protect wolves under the state’s Endangered Species Act over the objections of some hunting and livestock industry groups.
Last week, the Biden administration declined to reverse a decision by the Trump administration to remove most gray wolves from federal protections, saying the species had adequately recovered over most of the range.
California’s wildlife agency had opposed the move in part because “delisting” wolves from the federal Endangered Species Act removes a key federal funding source for the state, and it also means federal charges can’t be pursued for those accused of illegally killing a wolf.
At least two wolves have died in suspicious circumstances in recent years, including a GPS-collared wolf in Modoc County that had been shot and killed along the roadside.