SACRAMENTO, Calif . — A lone gray wolf in the prime of his life roams 730 miles to seek a mate and a new home, crossing nearly the entire state of Oregon in two months.
He skirts small towns, crosses numerous highways, surmounts the Cascade mountain range and pauses just 30 miles from California.
It sounds like the stuff of legend.
But this journey is very real, and it holds huge implications for California. If the wolf, known to Oregon officials as OR7, resumes its southbound trek it will make history as the first wild wolf confirmed in California in nearly 90 years.
The wanderings of OR7 are already stirring excitement, not to mention controversy.
“It’s actually a reason to celebrate,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the group Defenders of Wildlife, which led the effort to reintroduce wolves to the West. “I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime.”
Cattle and sheep ranchers in the state’s northern counties are not among the celebrants. Some are watching OR7′s travels with dread.
“We definitely have concerns,” said Jack Hanson, a cattle rancher near Susanville and treasurer of the California Cattlemen’s Association. “I’m hesitant to say I see a clear road and things will go well.”
The California Department of Fish and Game, for more than a year, has worked on a plan to prepare for the eventual return of wolves. It expects to release the plan in January.
“There’s a very high probability, in the next few years, that a wolf will enter California,” said Mark Stopher, who oversees the plan as a special assistant to the Fish and Game director.
“The wanderings of OR7 bring the urgency to a higher level,” Stopher said. “He could be in Yreka in two days if he wanted to be.”
Perhaps no other wild animal carries as much baggage as the wolf.
Centuries of human storytelling have portrayed the wolf as a conniving predator that targets people, from “Little Red Riding Hood” to a new movie coming in January, “The Grey,” in which wolves hunt plane crash survivors.
Biologists say such stories are a gross distortion. There are only two cases in the past century of wolves killing people in North America, and even those are disputed. Death by grizzly bear, mountain lion – even deer, elk and moose – is far more common.
“Unfortunately, with wolves it seems many people can’t distinguish between mythology and fact,” Stone said.
Wolves were eradicated across the West in the early 1900s by hunters and trappers who saw them as a threat to livestock.
The last wild wolf documented in California was killed by a trapper in 1924 in Trinity County. It had only three legs, having escaped a previous trapping attempt.
More recent thinking has revealed the important place of the wolf in Western ecosystems. For example, because they tend to prey on the weakest member of a deer or elk herd, wolves help keep those species stronger. They are also known to harass coyotes, which have become a significant pest in some rural areas.
The 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, remains one of the most controversial undertakings in the history of the Endangered Species Act. The service transplanted 66 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho wilderness areas.
Ranchers feared cattle and sheep losses. Hunters worried that populations of elk, important prey for wolves, would be suppressed.
Fifteen years later, the transplants have grown to a population estimated at 1,651 wolves across six states. The population is so strong that wolves were removed from the endangered species list in most of their western range in October.
Elk numbers have not been significantly harmed. Data from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming indicate larger herds overall than before the wolf returned. The distribution of some herds has changed, but the states report hunters have equal or greater success harvesting elk.
Mike Ford, Northern California representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the local situation is a bit different. California has one of the smallest elk populations in the West, and the species has been slow to recolonize much of its former habitat.
“Adding a predator is going to potentially slow us down,” Ford said. “It’s going to potentially extirpate elk from places in California again.”
Livestock ranchers are similarly concerned.
According to federal data, wolves killed 4,588 cattle and sheep across the Northern Rockies from 1995 through 2010. Those losses are small relative to the livestock inventory in those states, which totals millions of animals.
OR7 is a direct descendant of the reintroduction effort, and his origins hold both promise and peril to people watching his movements.
He was born two years ago in the Imnaha pack, which lives in Oregon’s northeast corner. His mother is B-300, the first wolf to return to Oregon when she migrated from Idaho in 2008.
His father is OR4, a wolf the state planned to kill this year because it was preying on livestock. That action has been stayed after a lawsuit by environmental groups.
OR7 is believed to have participated in livestock killings but was not considered an instigator, said Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages a wolf population in the state that now stands at 24.
OR7 wears a GPS collar that records his location daily. After his long journey, he has lingered for the past three weeks in the Siskiyou National Forest east of Medford.
“This is the farthest a wolf has ever dispersed in Oregon,” Dennehy said. “Like everyone, we’re watching and interested to see what this wolf does, because there’s just no telling what could happen.”