In what may herald a new era of wolf expansion into the West Coast, a lone male wolf that gained fame by wandering hundreds of miles west of any known wolf pack in the lower 48 states has become a father.
The so-called westernmost wolf, which wears a collar transmitting his GPS coordinates and is known as OR7, recently settled down on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains in southwestern Oregon to what was expected to be a life of solitude.
But in early May, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who study the wolf were stunned to see photos of what looked like a dark black female caught by the same motion-triggered cameras that capture images of OR7. It looked very much as if the lone wolf of the West had found a mate. How she got there remains a mystery.
On June 2, government biologists visited the site, in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and saw and photographed two pups. There may well be more, as most wolf litters include between four and six pups. Biologist John Stephenson says he thinks he heard more pups.
The pups are the first known wolf reproduction in the Oregon Cascades since the mid-1940s, according to the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife. At the end of last year, the department counted 64 wolves in the state, most of them in the northwest corner.
Searching for More Pups
To find the pups, the biologists used information from OR7's collar to find the den's location, which they are keeping secret. They then hiked into the dense forest. Stephenson had noticed a little clearing on aerial photos, and stationed himself along the edge. "They like to use openings and sit in the sun just like our dogs do in the mornings," he says.
Patient waiting paid off, and soon two frolicking pups appeared. When Stephenson turned on his camera to photograph them, the wolves heard the tiny electronic noise and retreated to a log. When they poked their cautious noses out again, he was able to get the shot.
To count as on official breeding pair, and thus as a "pack," according to the state's wolf management plan, OR7 and his mate must have two pups survive until December 31. So Stephenson and his colleagues will head back out later to put a new collar on one of the parents, as OR7's collar batteries are wearing out.
They are also notifying those permitted to graze livestock in the area. But other than that, the biologists will just watch and hope for the best. "What we mainly do as managers is make sure they stay out of trouble," says Stephenson.
He expects the pups to disperse and form their own packs, if they survive. As they are quite close to the California border, the next pack may well be in that state.
When OR7 crossed into California from its native Oregon three years ago, the animal became the first known wolf in the state since 1924. The crossing brought OR7 national notoriety.
Coincidentally, on the same day that biologists released the news about the pup this week, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act.
"No land animal is more iconic in the American West than the gray wolf," Michael Sutton, the head of the commission, said in a statement. "Wolves deserve our protection as they begin to disperse from Oregon to their historic range in California."
Some area politicians are less welcoming towards the canines.
"I cannot imagine why anyone would propagate wolves in a region where cattle are being run, other than trying to remove the cattle," says State Senator Doug Whitsett, who represents several southeastern Oregon counties. "It worked in Idaho and Montana, and now they are trying it in southern Oregon. It took the state of Oregon over 100 years to eradicate these things. Now we are putting them back into place."
Stephenson, the biologist who has been on the receiving end of OR7's collar data for years, was pleased to see the pups. He spoke from the side of the road near Bend, Oregon, where he was fielding a long string of reporter's calls.
"I am getting a lot of calls, and these pups are pretty cute," he says.
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