OR7, a gray wolf born in eastern Oregon five years ago and later collared by government researchers, became famous when he went on an epic voyage across the state. In 2011 he crossed into California, becoming the first wild wolf in that state since 1924. Since then, he has roamed the Cascades of southern Oregon and northern California, regularly crossing the state line. (Read "Wolf Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)
He seemed doomed to a life of solitude. As recently as this winter, researchers were leaning toward letting him fade from view when the batteries died on his GPS tracking collar. Then in March, biologist John Stephenson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noticed that the wolf seemed to have settled down.
"That's the breeding season," Stephenson says, "so we were curious. But we always felt it was a real long shot that a female wolf would find him." Nevertheless, he and his colleagues put out some camera traps in the small area where OR7 was roaming, in the Rogue River National Forest in Jackson County, Oregon.
On May 7, the researchers swung by the site and picked up the memory cards from the cameras.
And there, in images collected on May 3, they saw what they never expected to see: OR7 and another, unknown wolf, photographed within an hour of each other. The mysterious newcomer was blacker than OR-7. It was also smaller, with a slender head, and it squatted to urinate—all of which suggested it was female.
Given its close proximity to OR7 in the mating season, Stephenson believes the odds are good that the pair already have pups hidden in a den somewhere. The researchers are keeping a respectful distance, but hope the traps will capture images of the pups, if pups there are. They could emerge from the den "right about now," says Stephenson.
Endangered or Not?
Last June, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list throughout the U.S. Only a subspecies in the Southwest, the Mexican wolf, would remain protected. Though wolves exist in significant numbers only in the northern Rocky Mountains and in the western Great Lakes region, where the FWS has already delisted the species, agency director Dan Ashe has argued that they are safe from extinction.
There are 64 wolves in Oregon—all of them, except OR7 and its possible mate, in the eastern part of the state—and 52 in central and eastern Washington. Those wolves do not require special protection, the FWS proposal said, because they "are not discrete from wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains—rather they constitute the expanding front of large, robust, and recovered wolf populations to the north and east."
"We are confident that wolves will continue to recolonize the Pacific Northwest regardless of Federal protection," the proposal added.
Other scientists and conservation groups disagree. For Kieran Suckling, head of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the delisting plan, the potential new pack in the Cascades just illustrates the fact that wolf recovery is far from over, and that it won't be complete until there are self-sustaining populations from coast to coast.
"There are huge tracts of sparsely settled wolf habitat on the West Coast from the North Cascades and coast ranges south through the Sierra Nevada into the Mojave Desert, then eastward in Nevada and Utah," says Suckling. "It would easily support 2,000 wolves. It is crazy to cancel the federal recovery plan just as wolves are poised to make the big leap to real recovery."
The conservation group Oregon Wild, which held a public contest to choose a more appealing name for OR7 (the winner was "Journey"), has been using the story of the pioneer wolf to make the same case. The discovery that Journey no longer seems to be journeying alone, says spokesperson Rob Klavins, "is just one more piece of evidence that there are some wolves in western Oregon, that they need protection, and that if we give them a chance they will mount a strong recovery."
Nothing is known about the origin of the possible mate. She could have come from a pack in central Washington State, or from eastern Oregon like OR7. But her presence might also be a hint that there already are wild wolves farther west than was thought, perhaps even in California. Stephenson likes that idea. "It is nice to not know everything about wild animals," he says.
Living With Wolves
No matter how many collars are put on them or camera trap photos are snapped, wolves will always be wild, exciting, and dangerous animals. The surprising success of OR7 in striking out on his own and likely starting a pack in a place wolves haven't lived for nearly 100 years is a cause for celebration—but also a "wake-up call," says wolf biologist Dan MacNulty of Utah State University in Logan. It's time, he says, for people in the region to begin planning how to live with wolves.
"Where do we want wolves? How do we manage them?" MacNulty asks. He favors a fine-scale zoning approach, where wolves are encouraged in some areas but aggressively controlled in others, such as areas dense with livestock.
After the polarizing "wolf wars" that accompanied the recovery of wolves in the Rocky Mountains, Suckling sees the potential for a "do-over" on the West Coast, with its different politics. In the long term, he says, "we are talking about wolves in the backyard of Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, and San Francisco. The social conditions are more accepting of wolves and there is great habitat."
There are signs that his optimism may be justified, in Oregon at least. The state has its own endangered species protection for wolves; the leading Republican and Democratic candidates for governor support wolf reintroduction. And Oregon ranchers, says Bill Hoyt, past president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, will be inclined to compromise with the environmental lobby on a management strategy that only targets wolves that—unlike OR7—have a history of going after livestock.
"If a wolf is not an offender, we don't have a problem with it," Hoyt says. "The ranching community is taking a reasonable approach to solutions thinking, and not a bloodthirsty approach of killing every wolf that walks."