SSU Study Sheds New Light on Wolves in California


Research shows that wolves have been a part of California's cultural heritage for thousands of years.

A study recently released by the Sonoma State University Anthropological Studies Center (ASC) sheds new light on the widespread historical distribution of wolves in the state.

The report demonstrates the historic presence of gray wolves across California and comes as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering whether to protect the animals under the state's Endangered Species Act.

"The new research is relevant to the state's decision," said Lauren Richie, Northern California associate director for the California Wolf Center, "since it provides evidence of the widespread distribution of California's wolf population across diverse habitats before wolves were hunted to extinction here."

The study, conducted by the University's staff archeologist Michael Newland and faunal specialist Michael Stoyka, found linguistic and cultural evidence indicating that indigenous peoples across California had words for, and rituals involving, wolves.


ASC staff archaeologist Mike Newland explains the importance of the wolf study for the future of habitat restoration

mikenewlandsm.jpg"This was an engaging project for several reasons. The first is that the study has immediate applicability--the California Wolf Center is working with state and federal agencies to try to determine what the pre-contact population and distribution of the gray wolf might have looked like here.

The second is that big predators tend to be elusive in the archaeological record--generally, native peoples either didn't eat large predators or did so only under certain circumstances. You rarely find large predator bone on an archaeological site, and when you do, it's in very small quantities.

The third, and perhaps, for me personally, the most important reason this project was intriguing was its implications for habitat restoration. I study the pending impacts of climate change on archaeological sites. Each day that passes, we get more data showing that the more intact, and larger, an ecosystem is, the more likely it is to withstand the effects of climate change.

Increasingly, environmental scientists looking to reconstruct pre-contact habitat are turning to archaeology to finds out what kinds of plants and animal species were here.

The archaeological record contains a wide variety of animal bone, seeds, pollen, and wood charcoal--it's a cross-section of what was available at the time the site was used.

Our wolf study is a small piece of that puzzle. It's part of our efforts to help inform policy decisions that, over the next century, will affect us all.

No fewer than 15 of California's indigenous languages have distinct words for "wolf," "coyote" and "dog," and in the oral traditions of five languages, wolves appear as deities or a part of ceremony or ancestral history.

The wolf is a creator deity, for instance, in Southern Paiute traditions; sorcerers are capable of turning into wolves in Tolowa traditions; and three Northern California tribes -- the Karuk, Hoopa and Yurok -- used wolf fur in their dance regalia. Evidence also exists that some California tribes ate wolves as food.

The widespread distribution of evidence implies the wolf itself once had an expansive range, from north to south and from east to west throughout the state, says Newland. "In modern times we talk about wolves being ecologically important," said Amaroq Weiss, a West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, "but this research shows us that wolves have been a part of California's cultural heritage for thousands of years."

Previous research had compiled historical accounts of sightings of wolves in California by European explorers and settlers, and these accounts were from locations scattered widely across the state. But because it was not always clear that observers were familiar with, and could distinguish between, wolves, coyotes and dogs, the reliability of such accounts had been called into question.

The new study's linguistic analysis honed in on whether indigenous people distinguished between these three canids, and the study's examination of the role ascribed to wolves in cultural stories and traditions revealed unique treatment of the wolf -- quite distinct from roles or characteristics assigned to coyotes or dogs.

"This study sets a baseline for understanding that many indigenous people across California came into contact with wolves and also helps to identify additional research areas that would broaden our understanding of the historical distribution, role and cultural significance of wolves in California," said Newland.

Wolves were driven to extinction in California by the mid-1920s, but in late 2011 a wolf from Oregon, known as OR-7 or "Journey," entered California and remained in the state for 15 months, wandering throughout seven northern counties before returning to Oregon in March.

The dispersal of this wolf into California sparked efforts to gain full state protections for the species, in anticipation that Oregon's growing wolf population will result in more wolves finding their way into California.

wolfflower.jpgA state listing petition filed in 2012 by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies resulted in the gray wolf being declared a candidate for listing; the state is expected to complete its status review and issue a recommendation on listing late this year.

This project was administered by the California Wolf Center and was supported with funds from the California Wolf Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath Forest Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club California and Winston Thomas, Ph.D.

The full assessment can be found at


Michael Newland, Sonoma State University Anthropological Studies Center,
(707) 664-2734
Lauren Richie, California Wolf Center, (443) 797-2280
Amaroq Weiss, Center for Biological Diversity, (707) 779-9613

Images provided by the California Wolf Center.


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