10/02/2012 02:09 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

A Pivotal Moment for California's Wolves

The future of wolves in California is nearing a critical point: Will the Golden State embrace the return of these once-native predators or turn its back on them?

Later this week, the California Fish and Game Commission will hold a public hearing about whether to protect wolves under the state's Endangered Species Act. California's Fish and Game Department -- the full-time staff biologists and other non-political employees -- in August recommended that wolves get consideration for legal protection.

This moment has its roots in a chilly day late last year. On Dec. 28, 2011, a two-and-a-half-year-old male wolf, 700 miles from its home in northeastern Oregon, wandered into northern California's Siskiyou County. It was the first confirmed wolf in California in more than 85 years -- and quickly became the focal point over the future of wolves in the state.

The wolf, nicknamed "Journey" by a group of school kids, has since meandered back and forth between Oregon and California. It's unclear where it'll finally settle down but what is clear is that wolves in California -- and indeed along the West Coast in Oregon and Washington -- are a reality.

We ought to welcome them. And protect them.

Here's why: Until the 20th century, wolves roamed much of California, where they played an important role at the top of the food chain. That was undone by government extermination programs, often at the behest of the livestock industry, driving wolves off the landscape. By the 1920s, there were hardly any wolves left in the continental United States.

Our understanding about the importance of large predators like wolves and grizzly bears has evolved over the last four decades. These keystone species are critical to the function of ecosystems, keeping deer and elk populations in check, reducing the spread of disease and calibrating the suite of wildlife -- from birds to coyotes and even plants and trees -- that keeps these wild places running as they had for thousands of years.

Wolves were brought back to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s and, since then, scientists have documented that by forcing elk to move more and to choose different locations, wolves allowed streamside vegetation to grow, benefitting beavers and songbirds. Northern Rocky Mountains wolves have also had a dramatic impact on coyote populations, benefitting fox and pronghorn numbers.

Journey is a descendent of those wolves in Yellowstone and the northern Rocky Mountains and part of a fledgling movement to recolonize suitable habitat in California, Washington and Oregon.

Obviously the terrain has changed since wolves last occupied the West Coast. Cities, subdivisions, strip malls and freeways have replaced meadows, lush valleys and dense forests. But fortunately, there are still hundreds of square miles of habitat left for wolves, vast wild places that still teem with prey and sites for dens where wolves can raise their families.

Wolves will come back, but only if we let them. One of the first steps is making sure they're protected from the kind of persecution that drove them off the landscape a century ago. In California, that means protecting them under the state Endangered Species Act, a move that shields them from harm and prompts the development of a recovery plan, a roadmap that sets population goals and helps safeguard their habitat.

Wolves have returned to other parts of the country -- notably the Rockies, Great Lakes region and the Southwest. It's time that California and the rest of the West Coast to open a new chapter in that story.