California wildlife officials announced an exciting discovery Friday: a new pack of endangered gray wolves in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, several hundred miles away from any other known population.

Gray wold sighting in Tulare County via California Department of Fish and Wildlife courtesy of Michelle Harris, Samantha Winiecki-Love, Ryan Slezak and Colibri Ecological Consulting.

Gray wolves, a native California species, had been hunted to extinction in the Golden State nearly a century ago, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). They were declared endangered in 1974, protected them under both state and federal law that made it illegal to hurt or kill them.

But in 2011, a handful of gray wolves have begun to make their way back from out-of-state packs, and today, three confirmed packs call northern California home: the Whaleback Pack in Siskiyou County, the Lassen Pack in southern Lassen/northern Plumas counties, and the Beckwourth Pack in Plumas and Sierra counties, per CDFW.

This new pack would be the fourth rare Californian pack. Its discovery originally occurred on July 12, when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife received reports of a lone wolf sighting in the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County, according to the Chronicle. That’s about 200 miles south of the closest-known pack in Lassen Park.

Researchers following up found tracks, scat, and hair in the area, CDFW said. After DNA analysis, they realized that the animals were gray wolves, and the pack had at least five female wolves not previously detected in California. The pack apparently includes an adult female and her four offspring (two males and two females), although researchers didn't find any trace of an adult male.

The DNA testing revealed that one of the wolves is a direct descendant of OR7, the first wolf that crossed into California in 2011 from Oregon, as NPR reported. OR7 is believed to have returned to Oregon and died there. DNA also reported showed that the new pack is descended from the Lassen Pack.

CDFW isn’t sure how the new pack emerged this far south, but have been tracking these wolves for the past decade to help the species rebound in the state. The agency notes that gray wolf populations have expanded in the American west with significant populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, with smaller but stable populations in Washington and Oregon. They've never been intentionally reintroduced in California. So this new pack and new habitat has left experts surprised, hopeful, and a little confused, according to the Chronicle.

Feature image of female gray wolf pup in Lassen County, September 2019, via California Department of Fish and Wildlife.