Nation

OR7, the wandering wolf, looks for love in all the right places

The gray wolf OR7, star of documentary, may have found love in Oregon Cascades
OR7, the gray wolf who trekked from Oregon to California in 2011, may have become a father
California could see wolves living in the state if OR7 has pups. But how to manage future populations?

A Hollywood publicist couldn't have planned it better.

Just in time for the world premiere of "OR7 -- The Journey," a documentary about a photogenic gray wolf who stole hearts on his 2011 trek from Oregon to California, comes big news from wildlife officials.

The endangered young male who splits his time between the Beaver and Golden states has probably found a partner, after a lengthy search that spanned thousands of miles. And there's also a chance that he just might be a dad.

If state and federal biologists are right, OR7 and his mystery mate would be the first known wolves to breed in the Oregon Cascades since the early 20th century. The possibility has sparked hope among lovers of all things lupine that the species could take hold again in California, which has had no known wolf presence for nearly 100 years.

Cue the puparazzi.

"OR7 is over 250 miles from the nearest known wolf pack," said John Stephenson, an Oregon-based wolf biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been monitoring the animal. "It always seemed like a real long shot that he'd find a female wolf in that area. There aren't any.

"We don't know where this female came from," Stephenson said. "It's exciting that a female would find him way down there so far away from where the wolves are."

Wildlife officials readily acknowledge that no single animal arouses as much passion as the wolf. Managing wolves has been hugely controversial, with advocates touting the ecosystem benefits of returning top predators to the wild, while livestock interests and big-game hunters blame the creatures for devastating sheep, cattle and elk herds.

A living, shedding embodiment of the mythic lone wolf, OR7 first burst upon the national stage three years ago, when he left his pack in northeastern Oregon and set out to find territory and a mate to call his own.

His travels took him to California's Siskiyou County late in 2011, making him the first gray wolf documented in the state since 1924. State and federal biologists followed the creature with a tracking collar as he traveled about 3,000 miles after leaving his pack.

OR7 trekked back and forth between Oregon and California over the next few years. But recently the wolf's behavior changed. He began to exhibit what biologists call "denning" or "localizing," spending his time in a relatively small area in southwestern Oregon.

"We were curious," Stephenson said. "His collar is getting old. It's over three years, and three years is the lifespan of those collars. We'd been getting a lot of questions about whether we would re-collar him. We weren't going to. He's a lone wolf. There's only so much information you can get."

But with his new habits, the scientists decided to make one last effort "before the collar went out to see if he had found anybody," Stephenson said. "I put some cameras out. I'm glad we did. I'm still very surprised by it. It's pretty cool."

The cameras were placed around the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in April. This month, they captured photographs of a black wolf squatting to urinate. But that alone, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf biologist Russ Morgan, was not enough evidence of gender.

"The squatting to pee is an indicator, but young males also do the same," Morgan said in an email. "However, the head shape of the animal (slender face, and especially narrow space between its ears) is especially diagnostic, and when combined with the squatting, is confirming."

Bingo! A girl. But was she a girlfriend?

The two wolves had never been photographed together, which made their relationship especially hard to confirm. But on May 3, biologists caught a break. At 6:30 a.m., OR7 was photographed sauntering by one of the remote cameras. An hour later, the female ran past the same spot.

"They're in the same area," Stephenson said. "They certainly know about each other.... It's very likely they've paired up."

Gray wolves tend to mate in late January and early February, and pups are born in April. Biologists do not plan to check on what could be southwestern Oregon's first wolf pack in nearly a century until the pups are older and beginning to leave the den.

Wolves are native to Oregon, but the last known example of the species was killed in the mid-1940s as part of a government-sponsored predator control program, said Elizabeth Materna, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also historically ranged widely in California.

The gray wolf was listed as federally endangered in 1973. Oregon added its own protections in 1987, and state law requires agencies “to conserve wolves in Oregon,” said Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Now, with wolf packs solidly reestablished and widely ranging in the West, state wildlife officials say it is reasonable to conclude California will host a functional wolf population within 10 years. The California Fish and Game Commission is debating how to manage that population once it is established.

In April, the commission considered, then postponed, a decision on whether to afford gray wolves protection under the state's Endangered Species Act. The panel will take up the matter in July.

Several states in the West, as well as the Great Lakes, are moving to codify wolf regulations, in the face of the pending proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections for all gray wolves in the Lower 48 states. That decision is not expected until next year.

The federal agency has already handed over management of the wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, which all allow hunting and trapping of the species. A small population of Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona would be protected as a threatened species.

Wildlife officials want OR7's possible progeny to remain undisturbed for at least another month.

But nature lovers curious about the pups’ famous father can head to the Hollywood Theater in Portland on May 25 for the comely wolf's star turn.

"OR7 has put an exclamation point on the understanding that wolves travel," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, an advocacy group co-sponsoring the premiere. "If this pair does breed, in a decade there could be wolves recolonizing habitat in Northern California. He's certainly been there and checked it out."

Times staff writer Julie Cart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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