By Barry Kaye
His official name is OR7. It is the number on his GPS-equipped radio collar. He is better known as the lone gray wolf who defied the odds and changed history.
Seven years after a meandering journey through northern California that covered thousands of miles and garnered international attention – the first wolf to enter the state since 1924 – OR7 is alive and well, according to wildlife officials. He is now the leader of the Rogue pack in Crater Lake National Park.
What makes OR7 so unusual is that he has survived for nearly 10 years in the wild, sired five litters, and now four of his offspring have returned to California ostensibly to start packs of their own. He also has his own Twitter account.
Nobody is sure why OR7 first headed south to the Golden State in December of 2011. Searching for female companionship is always a good guess. Wolves are social creatures that once covered all of North America. OR7 made it as far as Red Bluff before turning around and eventually heading back to Oregon.
Jenny Nixen, a teacher from Santa Cruz, reported seeing OR7 outside Yreka. Her eyewitness account matches data showing the animal entering Siskiyou County near Dorris and later crossing Interstate 5.
His sheer size is the first thing that stood out, Nixen said. The wolf’s biological father, OR4, at 115 pounds, was one of the largest gray wolves ever measured in Oregon, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. OR7 checks in closer to 105 pounds and is six feet in length.
“That’s why I noticed him because he was so big,” Nixen said, adding that she is positive it was not a coyote. “The way it was moving. The speed with which it was moving. Everything about it,” she said.
Ranchers, of course, are not thrilled.
A popular refrain in the industry involves the “Three S’s” – shoot, shovel and shut up. The first breeding pair of wolves in California included a sibling of OR7 and produced five offspring in 2015. They had distinctive black coats and became known as the Shasta pack due to their proximity to 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta. One day they all disappeared.
Shortly before the Shasta pack fell off the radar there had been an attack on livestock attributed to wolves, the first such recorded event in nearly 100 years.
“There is a raw side to nature and we just can’t help it,” said Jim Rickert, owner of the 40,000-acre Prather Ranch that spans five counties in Northern California. He said communication and collaboration are critical if wolves and ranchers are to co-exist.
“I just don’t think it is realistic to kill them all,” he said. “So, we need to mitigate it so we can survive it.”
Rickert is as old school as they come. On slaughter day in Macdoel, usually a Tuesday, he is front and center “doing the worst job.”
He actually is more concerned about mountain lions than wolves. A neighboring rancher lost nearly an entire herd of sheep due to a young mountain lion that went on a rampage, killing more than 40 animals. When it was finally captured, Rickert suggested releasing it in Los Gatos, heart of Silicon Valley. Proposition 117 banning the hunting of mountain lions in California passed overwhelmingly there in 1990.
He was joking (the animal was later released in a remote area), but it cuts to the core of the issue: perception vs. reality.
From author Jack London (“Call of the Wild”) to composer Peter Tchaikovsky (“Peter and the Wolf”) to HBO (“Game of Thrones”), few species are as iconic as Canis lupus. Complicating the issue is that wolves have territories that can encompass hundreds of square miles, muting the difference between public and private lands.
On average, a wolf can travel 15 miles in a single day and reach speeds of 40 mph. Due to its unique biology, digestion takes only a few hours allowing it to eat several times in a 24-hour period. They prefer lower elevations as opposed to the deep, dark woods to hunt their prey, usually deer and small game. Livestock are rarely attacked although depredations occur.
Oregon’s OR4 was shot from a helicopter by state officials two years ago after he became too old to hunt and turned to cattle and sheep. One reason he might have been caught is that wolves are monogamous by nature and he refused to leave his longtime mate, OR2, who had an injured leg and was nicknamed “Limpy.” The entire pack was terminated, including two pups.
While appearing harsh on the surface, wolf management plans all have something in common: one size does not fit all. Michelle Dennehy, public information officer with ODFW, said they are working on an update to their general plan but “it has been difficult to find consensus among stakeholders so we currently have a professional facilitator running meetings.”
That leaves the future of wolves somewhat in doubt.
Joe Donnelly, an award-winning journalist who has written about OR7, said what attracted him to the animal was the idea that, while wolves can be killed, they can never be tamed. OR7′s plight forces people “by his very presence to consider the question, how are we going to live?”
“One of things we have to contend with is sustainability,” he said. “If we can’t make a place for the wolf, which in many cultures and traditions including ours is the very embodiment of nature, I don’t think we have much hope for ourselves.”
For the moment, a tenuous peace exists.
Wolves are protected in California under the state Endangered Species Act, making it a crime to kill one. More arrive every year. It stands to reason as wolf populations increase so will the inevitable conflicts.
All this because OR7 went looking for love in all the wrong places.
For some he is a majestic animal, the “wolf messiah” as a field biologist once called him. For others he is a harbinger of doom wrapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. It just depends from which side of the fence the wolf who changed history is viewed.