A lone Oregon wolf in search of a mate and new territory is gaining notoriety for an epic journey that experts believe may continue into California. If that happens the wily predator will become the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in nearly 90 years.
The 2 1/2-year-old male gray wolf, labeled by Oregon wildlife officials simply as OR7, has traveled a remarkable 730 miles since dispersing from the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon in September.
Biologists have not physically spotted OR7, and there have been no verified sightings of the animal since he began his marathon quest. But a GPS tracking unit relays OR7's position daily and he's presently utilizing wilderness northeast of Medford in portions of Klamath and Jackson counties, as close as 30 miles from California. It remains unclear whether he found an un-collared mate early in his travels.
OR7 is one of 24 known wolves in Oregon and the first documented wolf west of the Cascades in more than 60 years.
Though he has avoided towns, or passed through them undetected, he has acquired many fans, including environmental groups and Oregon school kids who are following his progress while participating in an Oregon Wild campaign to invent a more suitable name for OR7.
On its website, Oregon Wild spokesman Sean Stevens stated, "Part of the mystery of this wolf is we don't know what he looks like. Nobody has ever seen him."
But not everybody is a fan. Wolves were eradicated from the West in the early 1900s by trappers, and by ranchers trying to protect their livestock.
The reintroduction of wolves in the Northern Rockies in 1995 was controversial because of concerns about livestock and possible impacts on elk herds in some areas. But the predators, believed to play an important role in a healthy ecosystem by thinning deer and elk herds of their weakest members, have flourished and spread to six states.
But there have been livestock predation issues, including a cow killed last week by the Imnaha pack in Wallowa County. OR4, the pack's alpha male (pictured at right), is the father of OR7.
The pack is responsible for at least 19 livestock losses since spring of 2010. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials planned to kill two members of the pack to reduce the threat, but is under a court-ordered stay.
The question regarding OR7 is whether he will mark the beginning of the return of wolves to California, where the last verified specimen was killed by a trapper in 1924. The California Department of Fish and Game is taking this possibility seriously and is formulating a plan to deal with wolves' eventual return.
"There's a very high probability, in the next few years, that a wolf will enter California," Mark Stopher, of the CDF&G, told the Sacramento Bee. "The wanderings of OR7 bring the urgency to a higher level. He could be in Yreka [in Northern California] in two days if he wanted to be."
Said Jack Hanson, a cattle rancher near Susanville in Northern California: "We definitely have concerns. I'm hesitant to say I see a clear road and things will go well."
But for now things are going reasonably well for OR7. He has not been shot and if he found a mate early in his travels it could mark the beginning of a new wolf pack in recently uncharted teritory. To be sure, lots of people will be interested to to see how this plays out.
-- Image showing OR4, father of OR7, is courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife