An Incredible Journey Through Reporting on “Wildfire Brought Wolves Back”

A gray wolf is seen in the Sequoia National Forest.
Michelle Harris, Samantha Winiecki-Love, Ryan Slezak and Colibri Ecological Consulting/via the California Department of Fiash and WIldlife

The journey started on Wildfire Today.. this headline intrigued me..

After 150 years, wolves back in southern California — thanks to wildfire

A keystone species — an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem — is calling the fire area home again, 150 years after being hunted and driven out.

I became curious about what the current definition for a keystone species is. When I was with the FS I had to attend numerous presentations by wildlife researchers who all had rationales for why their species was a keystone species. It was kind of an interior joke to me .. how far would they go in rationalizing their “keystone-ness?”

It was interesting to see how folks like WEF and NRDC defined keystone species..according to WEF (the World Economic Forum, who knew that they were interested?) the gray wolf is a keystone species.

In short, keystone species enable other species to survive, occupying a key role in the ecosystem they are part of. Without them, their ecosystems would be dramatically different or even cease to exist.

I’ve been many places around the west before reintroduction and expansion of wolf populations, and thereafter.   They don’t seem dramatically different to me. Maybe because “dramatically” has no scientific definition.  Or because our state wildlife folks manage deer and elk populations such that they don’t need extra carnivores to keep the populations down (and some populations of deer and elk are apparently having trouble with numbers even without wolves).  If you’re going to argue “it’s better with wolves”,  I need more than “that’s the way it used to be.” Because nothing else in our environment is exactly the way it used to be.

But back to this “thanks to wildfire” idea:

Scientific American had an interesting article with the headline “Wildfire Brought Wolves Back to Southern California after 150 Years“.  Et tu Sci Am?

As a native Californian, I never thought of the Porterville area as “southern California.” I’d go for Central Calif, or the southern Sierra. And I’m not so sure the wildfires themselves drew them to that area. There are plenty of wildfire acres north of the Windy Fire.

“If you walk through a burned landscape with lots of dead trees, you’ll be surprised by the vibrant life which springs from the ashes,” says Andrew Stillman, an ecologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The female traveled about 200 miles from the nearest known wolf pack, scaling the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains.

Why did the wolves move so quickly into a burned landscape? When fires kill trees, more sunlight is able to reach the blackened soils; this stimulates dormant plants such as grasses to sprout. The nutritious grasses attract deer and other species, offering wolves a buffet.

I think the question is rather “why did the wolves go through so many other burned landscapes and settle on this one?”

The return of the predators has also led to some conflict with humans: McDarment and other reservation residents say wolves have killed their livestock.

But that link goes to a generic Sci Am article on wolves and livestock predation studies.

It looks like the California wolves were just news of the day bait for more generic statements by UBC ecologist, a senior scientist at Los Alamos, a UCLA ecologist, a Cornell bird ecologist, and a fire researcher at Natural Resources Canada. So what’s up with that?


I then went looking for “livestock killed on the Tule Reservation” and ran across an article in the Guardian.

The Guardian, like many news organisations around the world, is working to find new ways to fund our journalism to ensure we can continue to produce quality, independent journalism in the public interest.

Increasing philanthropic support for our independent journalism helps fund impactful Guardian reporting on important topics such as modern-day slavery, women’s rights, climate change, migration and inequality.

But can they call themselves completely “independent” if they take others’ funds, when those others have definitive worldviews?   Check out this link to “philanthropic partnerships”

 The Guardian is different. We have no billionaire owner or shareholders to consider. Our journalism is produced to serve the public interest – not profit motives. And we avoid the trap that befalls much US media – the tendency, born of a desire to please all sides, to engage in false equivalence in the name of neutrality

They seem very certain of what they think is correct.. personally I’d prefer some humility.  Anyway, back to the wolves.

The land on the reservation is high desert meets alpine, 55,000 acres of scrub and redwoods bordering Sequoia national forest.

Many of us live or have lived in the Sierra foothills.. we wouldn’t call it “high desert”; nor is the Sequoia National Forest “alpine” at that point.  And it’s Giant Sequoia, not “redwoods.”  A reporter could have easily found this excellent website on the reservation vegetation by the Tule River Tribe, which has all the details a person might want.

The fires brought another change: wolves.

After the blaze, the reservation became a perfect place for den sites and hunting. Wolves love open forests, too, and the reservation had plenty – plus beefy cows. In July, a gray wolf pack was spotted in nearby Sequoia national forest after a nearly 150-year absence in southern California.

If the fires brought the wolves, why did it take them two years to get there?

They need to hide, says Jordan Traverso, the communications lead for California’s department of fish and wildlife, because while many in California’s left-leaning cities cheered the wolves’ return, those living in and around them, like cattle ranchers, have little recourse if a wolf kills their livestock, which is why wolves are “so controversial”.

Just in case we didn’t know how the reporter feels about California (he is a Californian, if you go to his webpage you find that he writes on all kinds of topics):

 That also explains why California is actually a progressive paradox: it is both an environmental bellwether that influences everything from emissions to endangered species policy, which boosts conservation, but it’s also filled with large-scale agriculture and industrial farming which can often pollute and destroy the land.

Actually I don’t think California has much of a say in endangered species policy, which I think the feds have pretty well sewn up.

Then there are several generic quotes from a Montanan on wolves.

Wolves are neither monster nor romantic symbol – and they rarely attack humans or livestock. When the government reintroduced 41 wolves to Yellowstone national park in 1995, ranchers in Montana and Wyoming were up in arms. Over the next eight years, wolves killed just 256 sheep and 41 cattle in those states (states with millions of livestock).

“Instead of decimating cows,” Wolke says, “wolves reduced elk numbers, so willow and aspen trees came back. So did birds and beavers, which improved wetlands.”

While no one knows how many cows have been killed here, wolves cause less than 4% of US cattle deaths.

I tried to look up sheep and cattle deaths and found that.. people disagree. I did find the USFWS says that there were 154 cattle deaths in 2016 in Wyoming alone.  Of course, if you use the 8 years after reintroduction, there were probably fewer wolves on the landscape than the 377 they counted in Wyoming alone in 2016.

And as the CSU Extension document says:

  • Impacts to livestock from wolves creates costs borne by livestock producers, including mortality from wolf predation and other indirect impacts. These costs are unevenly distributed and localized, with some producers suffering greater losses than others.  Although wolf depredation is a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole, the impacts to individual producers can be substantial.
  • .7,12 For those impacted by wolf predation, the economic and emotional impacts can be substantial.  Both direct and indirect losses could significantly affect the livelihood of individual ranchers operating on thin profit margins in volatile market

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece:

It seems wolves are all locals want to talk about. Fear is the central theme, says Greg King, the author of The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods. “Ranchers fear for their livestock and humans fear for themselves. Fear is destructive. Maybe we can’t have it all.”

King is from Humboldt County.

And when locals get spooked, wolves often pay the price. Case in point – December 2018, when a northern California rancher saw a wolf feeding on a calf. Investigators determined the calf probably died of pneumonia, but that wolf was found dead on the side of a road, riddled with .22 caliber rounds. A rancher was arrested, but officers couldn’t prove that he pulled the trigger, so they let him go. That could happen here.

I’m not sure that once counts as “often.”

The LA Times says that the wolves reappeared in Giant Sequoia National Monument.

“Wolves rewild the landscape and that’s good not just for the wolves but for entire ecosystems,” said Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“California years ago laid out a welcome mat for wolves, and we can keep it there if we don’t get led astray by old fears and misconceptions,” she said.


It’s interesting that Ms. Weiss’s background is in law and advocacy, and not ecology nor wildife.

In any case, gray wolves occupy a small part of their historic range. Scientists say a comprehensive recovery plan encouraging their return is crucial to returning ecological stability across thousands of square miles of still-wild habitat.

Among them was ecologist Chad Hanson, who, in an interview, said the wolf pack has become, of all things, the beneficiary of wildfires that jump-started new generations of nutritious grass and shrubs that attract deer they prey on.

“Higher ungulate abundance provides prey for wolves,” he said. “Logging reduces habitat for deer, adversely impacting endangered wolves.”

That kind of talk leaves some federal forest managers and timber industry advocates quietly seething.

But I thought scientists had given up on “ecological stability” as a concept? Maybe that was only ecologists or only some ecologists?  Thousands of square miles of “still wild” habitat? Is the southern Sierra “still wild”? And Hansoniana also leaves many scientists “quietly seething.”

Could Hanson be the source of the strain in all this reporting of “fires attract wolves”?

So let’s look at the journalists involved Louis Sahagún of the LA Times; Adam Popescu an independent journalist (who wrote the Guardian and the Scientific American versions); and Hunter Bassler is a reporter in Saint Louis who writes for Wildfire Today.  Which is not to criticize them, certainly most of us couldn’t cover the range of stories that they do in any meaningful way.  As we said about climate science, they have to work with the systems they have.  And currently, apparently outlets can’t afford to pay people to keep this kind of expertise in their newsrooms.  The outlets that can afford it like E&E news, are not accessible to the average citizen nor many not-for-profits.  And the folks who fund journalism have definite worldviews that they promote.  It’s not a pretyy picture.



18 thoughts on “An Incredible Journey Through Reporting on “Wildfire Brought Wolves Back””

  1. Doug Bates, a friend, veteran journalist and Pulitzer prize winner gave a commencement address to graduating University of Oregon Journalism students. He urged the graduating students to become “true journalists” rather that “Gerbalist.” A term he used to define much of today’s so- called Journalism.
    I believe Doug and others may agree that the Guardian article claiming wildfire attracts wolves is simply more “Gerbalism.”

    • I get that.. but three points..
      1. Hunting elk vs. wolves at reducing numbers. Wolves decrease elk …willows/aspen grow in Yellowstone Park where there is no hunting.
      Hunters decrease elk… would willows/aspen also grow? Isn’t that why we have State Fish and Game, to figure out appropriate elk levels?
      2. Just because there are more/taller willows/aspen doesn’t necessarily influence the rest of plant communities.
      3. There is a scientific disagreement about this which I think someone more knowledgeable than I here at TSW linked to in a previous wolf discussion. A quick look on Google Scholar located this one.

      • I’d be really surprised if state game agencies figure out appropriate elk levels based on whether willows and aspen are doing well. I think it has more to do with maximizing accessible animals to shoot and big bucks.

        How could an increase in shrubbery NOT influence the rest of plant communities? Displacement of something would be an obvious effect in all cases, but you can also get beavers using those new sources which could lead to huge changes.

        • That’s probably true, but how do you decide what is the “right” amount of shrubberies.. do you just assume that wolves will cause it to occur? And we have plenty of beavers around, so do we not need wolves where we already have beavers?

            • How do you know the “right” number of wolves from NRV? Or how many shrubberies there were of what species, based on what year and why did you pick that year?

              • That was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but you don’t want my answers; you want someone who knows something about wolves or shrubberies. If they can’t give you an NRV answer, the FS Handbook provides a second option – “design plan components based on a general scientific and ecological understanding of the conditions that would sustain key ecosystem characteristics and sustain at-risk species using factors such as: representativeness, redundancy, habitat associations of particular species, disturbance dynamics, or observed conditions in reference areas.”

  2. Sharon, I agree, the idea that a specific fire attracted wolves to an area many miles away from where they were originally based is a stretch. One thing I want to comment on ties to this statement you made early on: “Or because our state wildlife folks manage deer and elk populations such that they don’t need extra carnivores to keep the populations down….”

    One controversial argument about the potential positive impact of wolves on deer and elk populations over that of hunting is the reduction of chronic wasting disease. More research is needed to understand this dynamic, but it makes intuitive sense to me.

    • Yup, as with all things Wolf, that is controversial. I tend to think of the elk herd migrating across the valley I can see from my office window and think “would life be better for them all with wolves chasing them and killing some of the sick animals?” If you add the pluses and minuses (like running away, being more wary) if we could ask them.. I’m pretty sure they’d say “no.”

  3. “Which is not to criticize them” (the reporters).
    It sounded like a firehose of criticism of them to me. It’s easy to say they don’t know as much about what they are talking about as what we as specialists might think we know. Or that they don’t interview the people we would interview. I’d save criticism of reporting for that which gives incorrect information, as opposed to drawing questionable conclusions from the information they have. (Unless there is evidence those questionable conclusions are intended as disinformation.)

    • Nope, I’m not criticizing them. They have to work within their system, which says “write about this one day and something completely different the next day” and “if you want to get published in these outlets, you must track this kind of narrative.” Their system does not allow them time to do the work and follow up on any skeptical instincts they have. Like I have said, I don’t do peoples’ intentions. And I think “wildfire brought wolves back” is not true, not just questionable.

      • I guess it is hard to distinguish what is presented as a fact and what is an interpretation. But I think that quoted phrase you are objecting to is basically attributed to Hanson (therefore a “fact” in this context), not something the reporter came up with.


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