SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- As California's lone gray wolf continues roaming the state's far northern wilds, officials Wednesday decided to launch a one-year study to see whether the species should be given state endangered species protections.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously in Sacramento that a "status review" study -- spurred by a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups -- is warranted.
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"Wolves, like grizzly bears, white sharks and mountain lions, have always been controversial," said Michael Sutton, the commission's vice president. "The status review we launched today will give us the information we need to make an informed decision on whether or not to protect the wolf in California."
Ranchers and at least three rural counties in the state's rugged, sparsely populated north opposed the plan, saying it was an unnecessary use of public money for a species that already has federal protection. While the actual cost of the state's one-year study is unknown, it will be at least partially funded by a $300,000 federal grant.
Endangered species protections for the gray wolf in California have been debated since December, when the Oregon-born wolf called OR-7 left his pack and wandered across the border seeking a mate.
It was the first hard evidence of a wolf in the state in more than 80 years, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. The wolf was hunted to extinction in California in the early 20th century.
OR-7 is still believed to be the only wolf in the state. The male wolf is outfitted with a tracking tag so he can be studied by government scientists.
Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species director, said the vote moves the wolves closer to recovery in California.
"Protection of wolves under the California Endangered Species Act will help these beautiful animals return to extensive habitat in northern California and the Sierra Nevada, where scientists estimate there is plenty of room for them," he said.
Since December, California's lone wolf has become a celebrity, with its own Twitter account and frequent state updates on his whereabouts.
Gray wolves in California are already protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. But populations in some Western states have been increasing, meaning they could qualify for delisting. Wildlife advocates want the state to ensure future protections in California if federal ones are dropped.
In some states where wolf populations have thrived, officials have implemented hunting programs to control growth.
"(Hunting) may affect future expansion," said Eric Loft, chief of the Fish and Game Department's wildlife branch.
Officials in several counties in the far north said the department's resources should be used to develop a management plan for the wolf, not on a study for protections they see as redundant.
"The people promulgating this affair have shown no evidence of caring about the (financial) burden this places on the people of California," said Ric Costales, a natural resources policy specialist for Siskiyou County. "Added to this is the insult that this is occurring at a time when the state and counties are struggling financially."
This Oct. 25, 2011 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows OR-11, a male pup from the Walla Walla pack, waking up from anesthesia after being fitted with a radio tracking collar in northeastern Oregon. Another wolf, OR-7, from the Imnaha pack, has become a celebrity by trekking 730 miles on a zigzag course from near the Idaho border tot he southern Cascade Range. His GPS tracking collar has traced his trail across the state. (AP Photo/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
This Feb. 13, 2010 file photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows wolf coordinator Russ Morgan with a female wolf pup just fitted with a radio collar in northeastern Oregon. Another Oregon wolf, known as OR-7, has become a celebrity since zigzagging 730 miles across the state, his journey tracked by GPS transmissions, looking for a mate and a new territory. (AP Photo/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
This map image provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the journey of a young wolf known as OR-7, which has become a celebrity by trekking 730 miles on a zigzag course across the state trying to find a mate and a new home. Meanwhile, back at home, his father and a sibling are under a death warrant for killing cattle. (AP Photo/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2011 file photo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist John Stephenson uses a tape to calculate the stride of Oregon's epic wanderer, the gray wolf known as OR-7, in the snow south of Crater Lake National Forest, Ore. A lone gray wolf has wandered across the Oregon border into California in what wildlife officials hailed Thursday as the historic return of a species not seen in the state in more than 80 years. Biologists tracked the wolf's position to a few miles south of the state line in Siskiyou County, the California Department of Fish and Game said. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Richard Cockle, File) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; TV OUT
This Nov. 14, 2011 photo from a trail camera appears to show OR-7, the young male wolf that has wandered hundreds of miles across Oregon and Northern California looking for a mate and a new home. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the photo likely shows OR-7, because a collar is visible on the neck, and GPS tracking data put him in the area where the camera was set on that date. Oregon's famous wandering wolf seems to be staying out of trouble after settling for now in the southern Cascades, but there are no signs he has found a mate yet. (AP Photo/Allen Daniels via The Medford Mail Tribune)
FILE - This May 8, 2012 file photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Game shows OR-7, the Oregon wolf that has trekked across two states looking for a mate, on a sagebrush hillside in Modoc County, Calif. State wildlife officials could move a step closer to listing the gray wolf as an endangered species in California. The gray wolf has been considered extinct in the state for decades, but a wolf born in Oregon that crossed the border has rejuvenated efforts to protect the species in the Golden State. That wolf, OR-7, is thought to be an indication that revitalized wolf populations in other Western states are making an expected push into California's wildlands. (AP Photo/California Department of Fish and Game, File)