By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, Feb 27 (Reuters) - A lone gray wolf known as OR-7 has made California home for only two months, but environmental groups on Monday sought to make it easier for the predator's species to reestablish a foothold in the state after an absence of more than 80 years.
The Center for Biological Diversity and three other conservation groups sent a petition to the California Fish and Game Commission to protect gray wolves as an endangered species under state law and to develop a plan to protect them.
Wolf populations for several decades have grown in parts of the United States under government protection, and environmentalists believe a similar rebound could occur in California. But, as in other states, ranchers and hunters have complained about livestock and big game animals coming under attack from wolves.
The federal government in recent years has found wolf populations in some areas had recovered enough to no longer require protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Wolves were delisted in states such as Idaho and Montana, where officials last year opened regulated hunting of them.
Before OR-7 arrived in California from Oregon in late December, no gray wolf had been known to roam in the state since the last, an old and emaciated animal, was killed in 1924, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
But conservationists were optimistic that more wolves could quickly join OR-7 in California.
"With growing wolf populations in Oregon and Washington, it's inevitable wolves will be moving back into California in the near future," Greenwald said.
Under the petition from the environmental groups, if state officials determine that the species merits endangered species listing they will have two years to develop a protection plan, Greenwald said.
A spokeswoman for the California Fish and Game Commission said the agency had not officially received the petition and could not comment on it.
Greenwald said the petition was mailed on Monday, which marks the start of the application process.
WARY CATTLE RANCHERS
The gray wolf is already protected in California under the federal government's Endangered Species Act, which prohibits hunting of the animal.
But the federal government has not developed a plan specifically for gray wolves in California, which is what the environmental groups are seeking from state officials.
Among other things, a plan would set recovery targets and create guidelines to protect gray wolves even when they pose a threat to livestock, Greenwald said.
The state has over 500,000 heads of cattle in open range, said Stevie Ipsen, spokeswoman for the California Cattlemen's Association. The organization is aware of environmental groups' efforts to gain greater protections for wolves in California.
"It's something we would be watching very closely, and potentially something we would be opposed to," Ipsen said.
California Department of Fish and Game officials have been keeping a close watch over OR-7 since the roughly 3-year-old animal arrived in the northern part of the state.
The animal left a wolf pack in Oregon last fall, crossed several highways and set foot in California on Dec. 28, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
The animal has a radio collar that has allowed biologists to track its movements, which so far have been in the northern part of the state. In recent days, it has headed closer to the border with Oregon. Members of the public have also kept tabs on OR-7 through Internet updates, and it has developed a following of sorts.
There are about 6,000 to 7,000 wolves in the United States, compared to a population of less than 1,300 when the federal Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, Greenwald said.
Before that, wolves were hunted to the edge of extinction.
The environmental groups that joined the petition sent to California officials were Big Wildlife, Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. (Additional reporting By Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Peter Bohan)