June 04–The wolf known as OR7 who roamed California for more than a year is now raising pups just over the state line in Oregon, wildlife officials have confirmed.
The news greatly increases the odds that gray wolves eventually will repopulate the Golden State. It comes on the same day that the California Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Fortuna on Wednesday, voted 3-1 to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act.
“There is no species more iconic in the American West than this one, the gray wolf,” said commission president Michael Sutton. “We owe it to them to do everything we can to help them recolonize their historic range in this state.”
In a field visit to OR7’s location in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on Monday, biologists observed two pups and photographed them peeking out of a log. Officials at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said it is “likely” there are more pups, because wolves typically produce four to six in a litter.
“For California, this is saying we have a breeding population in a national forest that straddles the Oregon-California border,” said Amaroq Weiss, a wolf expert at the Center for Biological Diversity. “When those pups start to go off on their own, they will be following OR7’s tracks.”
Wolf OR7 is so named because he was the seventh wolf to be radio-collared in Oregon. He became a media star when he dispersed from his home pack in northeast Oregon late in 2011 in search of a mate. He entered California in December of that year, becoming the first wild wolf confirmed in the state since the species was exterminated by hunters nearly 90 years ago.
The lone wolf spent much of 2012 wandering northeastern California in a circuitous path that eventually covered thousands of miles. He returned to Oregon in March 2013, but remained near the California border and has repeatedly crossed back and forth.
Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for the Oregon wildlife agency, said OR7’s wolf family is not yet officially considered a “pack.” That designation will only be applied if at least two pups survive until the end of this calendar year.
The biologists did not approach or handle the pups or the two adult wolves, but merely observed them.
A mystery still surrounds OR7’s mate. She was not previously known to wildlife officials, and they have no idea where she came from. On Monday, biologists collected wolf scat from the area where the pups were observed, some of which may shed some light on the adult female.
“We hope to get some DNA samples of her off that,” Dennehy said. “Those results will be several weeks from now, if not months.”
The decision to protect wolves under the California Endangered Species Act has been controversial. The Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Ventura in April, postponed a final decision to give Northern Californians more opportunity to comments.
At Wednesday’s meeting, a number of speakers representing hunting and cattle ranching groups urged the commission not to protect wolves under the state endangered species law, saying it would limit management options for property owners and for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Mike Ford, California representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, cautioned that protecting wolves could deplete their traditional primary prey, elk, which are far less numerous in California than other states where wolves have become reestablished.
“Let’s face it: Wolves are recovered, in many states they’re no longer listed, they no longer need that listing and we are getting dispersing animals,” said Mike Ford, California representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I don’t know that listing is going to do anything more than add a layer of bureaucracy and expense, which they don’t really need.”
Ford and others urged the state, instead, to rely on a wolf management plan being developed by state biologists and a broad spectrum of interest groups.
Others cautioned that the plan, while still necessary, may not be adequate. Federal officials are in the process of withdrawing protection for wolves in the lower 48 states following a successful reintroduction program, which began in 1995 in the Rocky Mountains. As a result, state protection may be necessary to ensure wolves can get a foothold in populous California.
Weiss, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the state Endangered Species Act requires the wolf population to be “restored and enhanced” as soon as any wolves appear in the state. This, she said, confers more protection than than the proposed management plan, which requires wolves to become “established” in the state first.
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.