A lone wolf heralds the return of a mythic predator

Posted Dec. 26, 2011, at 9:17 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — A GPS collar plots the journey of the lone gray wolf — loping over mountains, through forests and across highways.

The young male left his pack in northeastern Oregon in early September, setting out to find a mate and territory of his own. By the end of November, he had meandered 761 miles. Lately he has been lingering a day or two’s trot from California.

If OR7, as he is known, crosses the border, he will be the first wild wolf recorded in the Golden State since 1924.

Even if he doesn’t, the trek has made it evident that the return of the mythic native predator is imminent.

“We’re not planning to reintroduce wolves,” said Mark Stopher, an ecologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. “They’re going to show up on their own.”

That prospect is thrilling to conservationists but chilling to ranchers, who have lost livestock in other parts of the West.

“It’s going to be very high-profile, controversial,” Stopher said.

Gray wolves were all but eradicated in the lower 48 states by the 1930s. Protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they started to move back into northern Montana from Canada half a century later. Then in the mid-1990s, 66 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

As of last year, the Northern Rocky Mountain population had grown to an estimated 1,651 wolves. But that number is dropping in the wake of hunts OK’d in Montana and Idaho after Congress delisted much of the population earlier this year.

The Oregon wolves remain protected under the state’s endangered species law, and any grays that venture into California would have federal protections.

OR7’s wanderings are not that unusual for a young wolf. But his GPS collar has allowed wildlife biologists and the public to follow his route — and made him a bit of a celebrity.

Under the headline “Revealed: Amazing journey of the amorous wolf,” Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid ran an embellished account of his travels.

And the conservation group Oregon Wild, deciding that OR7 needed a more endearing name, launched a contest that drew several hundred suggestions from children as far away as Nigeria and Taiwan. The winner will be announced after New Year’s Day from the five finalists: Arthur, Max, Journey, Lupin and Takota.

About 2½ years old, OR7 is a member of the Imnaha pack, one of four gray wolf groups that have established themselves in northeastern Oregon since a lone female crossed the Idaho border in 1999. She was the first wolf spotted in the state since the 1940s.

The Imnaha are the best known of Oregon’s gray wolves because a number of them have tracking collars — and because they have developed a taste for livestock.

The pack, whose numbers fluctuate, has killed 20 cows and calves since the spring of 2010, earning death sentences for four of them. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife killed two in May, but a lawsuit filed by conservation groups has put a hold on killing the other two — including the fierce-looking alpha male, OR7’s father.

Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the department, in February took to the air in a helicopter and managed to shoot OR7 with a tranquilizing dart before attaching the GPS collar.

For more than a month, readings have placed him in roughly the same 100-mile range in the Cascades, about 40 miles from the California border.

“What’s been most impressive about this animal is how much — even though it’s staying in that same general area of late — it still makes large movements: 10,15, 20 miles in a night over the mountains,” said John Stephenson, Oregon wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stephenson has spent several days in the field tracking OR7 and looking for traces of a companion. So far, he’s come across just one set of saucer-size paw prints.

“My hunch is it’s by itself,” said Stephenson, while also speculating that OR7 had found good game pickings. The stripped carcass of an elk calf was discovered in a spot that matched the wolf’s earlier GPS coordinates.

On the other side of the state line, Siskiyou County ranchers are looking north with loathing.

Letting wolves back in the Golden State would be a “catastrophic mistake,” said Jeff Fowle, whose family has lost sheep, a mare and calves to the region’s mountain lions, coyotes and bears. “This is just one more predator that we’re going to be unable to control.

“It’s one thing that we’re incurring an economic loss,” he said. “But to watch a mountain lion or a coyote or a wolf make a kill. … It’s a tortuous, cruel kill.”

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