Wandering Wolf is First in California in Nearly a Century

Photograph of OR-11, a young male from Oregon's Walla Walla pack. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

He came in like a phantom. Unseen and un-photographed, he stepped into California from his native Oregon a few days after Christmas, making him the first confirmed wild wolf in the state in ninety years. Since then, he has traveled more than 2,000 miles, as the crow flies, tracked daily by a GPS collar.

Call it wanderlust. To date, OR-7, a member of Oregon's Imnaha pack, has traveled about 20 "air miles" a day since arriving in California on December 28. A two-year old male (his birthday is coming up, in April), his odyssey is typical dispersal behavior as he seeks out territory and other wolves.

Tracked by a GPS collar first by the Oregon department of Fish and Wildlife and now by California's Department of Fish and Game, his zigzag journey has taken him across his home state, through three California counties, and not far from the Nevada border. At the moment he’s hovering by Oregon once again, perhaps considering a return home.

"He's predictable in his unpredictablility," says wildlife manager Karen Kovacs, who leads the monitoring project for California Fish and Game. The department updates a website and map regularly with news of OR-7's travels, with a slight delay to deter poachers.

Like the arrival of a wolverine in Lake Tahoe four years ago, Kovacs believes the return of a wolf to California is hugely significant biologically and a sign of success in wolf recovery. 

To date OR-7 has had no confirmed interaction with humans or livestock. He has enjoyed a supper or two of deer, but it’s unclear whether he hunts the deer himself or lucks into free dinner left by someone’s car. He frequented a livestock bone pile until ranchers agreed to bury the waste. He’s even travelled right past a corral to visit a water trough, and then left the scene without troubling any animals. This is good news for OR-7, as many in his pack have taken cattle and been subsequently shot.

As Alisa Opar reported last March, gray wolves in America’s Rockies have created controversy as states argue for removing the wolf from the federal endangered species list. Today, wolves are recognized as an endangered species by the federal government but delisted in certain regions such as the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes. They are not listed in Alaska, and have been delisted from portions of Oregon and Washington. This week the public can comment on a possible wolf hunt in Wisconsin.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have argued that the wolf plays a crucial role in ecosystems, and, as Susan Cosier writes, have applauded efforts to reintroduce wolves in Yellowstone. 

Kovacs believes California still has time to develop a policy for wolf management in the event that the species is ever delisted. For now, she and her colleagues at California Fish and Game are already at work comparing and drafting strategies. In the meantime, they’re reaching out to educate and inform residents of California counties where OR-7 is travelling.

A map following OR-7's travels in California through February 15, 2012. Image: California Department of Fish and Game

Kovacs has been impressed by the strong support for the wolf. “Wolves elicit such a tremendous emotion in people,” she says. Hopefully that response will encourage a strategy that supports both wolves and humans.

To follow OR-7’s journeys, visit the California Department of Fish and Game website. For a look at gray wolf management in other parts of the world, visit Audubon magazine’s “The Big Bad Wolf?” on wolf management in France. 

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