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.
"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."