A trail camera in Lassen County, California, recently caught some furry shenanigans. Three gray wolf pups were wrestling and playing right in front of the lens, unaware that their good-natured romping was being recorded.
The pups were also caught by a U.S. Forest Service camera trailing dutifully after their mother through the woods.
Besides being incredibly adorable, the discovery of the gray wolf pups is also incredibly important.
"It’s significant because the birth of these pups represents the establishment of the second known wolf pack in the state after an 87-year absence," says Jordan Traverso of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). "They are also the 'grandpups' of the first wolf (OR-7) that was documented to have returned to the state since1924. OR-7 came into California in late 2011."
CDFW biologists captured the pups' mother and placed a tracking collar on her in late June. During an exam, they discovered she had recently given birth. After she was released, the researchers went back in the field the next day to check on her. They found a set of her tracks accompanied by tiny pup prints. Soon after, the mom and pups were seen on the trail camera. Researchers have dubbed them the Lassen Pack.
Gray wolves are considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both federally and in California. With these new babies, CDFW now knows there are at least five gray wolves in the state — the three pups and their parents. In 2015, biologists tracked the other established wolf pack, called the Shasta Pack. There were at least seven of them, including a breeding pair and five pups.
"However, we don't know if the Shasta Pack is still here," Traverso says, pointing out that since 2011, there have been 13 wolves documented in California. "We know there are five currently here, though if those 13 can get here, it's likely others can too."
According to CDFW, the tracking collar on the pups' mother will collect information about her activity, prey and reproduction habits. Because the Lassen Pack roams in both public and private lands, the device may help lessen the possibility of wolf-livestock run-ins by offering data about the pack's location in relation to livestock and ranch lands.
"For many years, we knew that wolves returning to the state was an inevitability, we just didn’t know when. Their return is an incredible ecological story," Traverso says.
"We have a vast range of constituent groups in the state. Some are thrilled at the return of this iconic species, others are concerned for the lives and livelihoods they have set up in the northern reaches of the state, namely cattle ranchers. The fact that we have now collared the female in the Lassen Pack will help us fine-tune the department’s conservation management plan, and help us protect livestock in the north state."