By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.)
MEDFORD, Ore. – When gray wolf OR-7 made his historic and famous trek from northeastern Oregon to find a mate and territory of his own, the lone wolf wandered well over 1,000 miles throughout Southern Oregon and even Northern California before he finally found what he was looking for in remote eastern Jackson County.
These days, he might be thinking the neighborhood is getting a little crowded.
A new draft report on Oregon’s wolves concludes that OR-7, his mate and four offspring remain the only official wolf pack outside of the northeastern corner of the state, but there are plenty of up-and-comers which, under the right conditions, could reach pack status come New Year’s Day.
At least three male wolves fitted with GPS collars have been tracked in southwestern Oregon this past year as well as three uncollared wolves documented in the Keno area, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2016 draft wolf report, released this week.
Should they find mates or simply hook up with some new running mates, they could join the OR-7’s clan as southwestern Oregon packs.
“We know they’re dispersing and establishing themselves here,” says Mark Vargas, the ODFW’s Rogue District wildlife biologist. “There are a lot of single wolves out there. But right now, all we know of is the Rogue Pack.”
A pack is described as four wolves traveling together in winter, a status OR-7, his mate and their first two pups cracked three years ago.
The pack is currently denning in the same general area of federal forestland in eastern Jackson County they have the past three years, Vargas says. They have produced pups annually, except only one of last year’s pups was confirmed to have survived into January, Vargas says.
Since they did not have two surviving pups, they did not join the ranks of eight breeding pairs counted in 2016 among Oregon’s 11 official packs.
“It’s not alarming,” says Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the ODFW’s wolf program. “It’s just that we didn’t find a second pup at the end of the year.”
OR-7’s GPS collar failed two years ago, but the clan’s images continue to get caught on trail cameras stationed by state and federal biologists tracking these animals federally protected as endangered species in Western Oregon.
Two other collared males – OR-25 and OR-3 – also are in the region.
Three-year-old OR-25 moved into eastern Jackson County earlier this year and has been lurking around the edge of the regular range of OR-7, his cousin with which he shares genes from northeastern Oregon’s Imnaha Pack.
Biologists presume he’s looking to lure a female away from the Rogue Pack.
OR-3 is an 8-year-old male in Lake County’s Silver Lake area and had mated with 3-year-old OR-28, which was also collared. They had at least one confirmed pup, but OR-28 was shot and killed by a poacher and biologists have seen no evidence of the pup, though OR-3 remains in the area.
Another collared wolf, OR-33, also made his way throughout eastern Jackson County, and though his collar failed last year, his image continued to show up on several game cameras until October, so his whereabouts are unknown.
Another set of three uncollared wolves was documented last year in the Keno area near Klamath Falls.
The trio remain the only documented wolves outside of northeastern Oregon in 2016, and likely for a good reason.
“Down here there’s good habitat, without a doubt,” Vargas says.
An ODFW study concludes that 41,256 square miles of Oregon are potential wolf range, of which 27,417 square miles actually lie in Western Oregon, including much of southwestern Oregon.
That research points to five factors wolves prefer when dispersing from their previous packs: forested areas, public land ownership, the availability of elk and other prey, low human presence and low road density, according to the study.
Those five conditions are met in places like eastern Jackson County’s Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, part of which the Rogue Pack calls home, as well as other South Cascades lands.
“Those factors indicate pretty strongly that it’s good wolf land down there,” says Amaroq Weiss, wolf coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Since the first confirmed wolf wandered into Oregon from Idaho in 1999, Oregon now sports a known wolf population of 112 animals, up two from 2016, the report states.
As their numbers expand, various studies found southwestern Oregon and Northern California to be prime candidates for relocation, since Western Oregon contains the bulk of suitable wolf habitat, experts say.
Some studies look at Northern California and Southern Oregon together because “the wolves don’t know there’s a state boundary there,” Weiss says.
The habitat studies put the number of wolves the region is able to support anywhere from 190 to 470, with a new California study suggesting the Golden State alone could one day be home to 500 wolves.
Those that have crossed between the two states have shown an affinity to the land bridge through southeastern Jackson County.
“That’s the area I’ve been calling a little bit of a wolf super-highway,” Weiss says.
But the super highway won’t be nose-to-tail with wolves, Weiss says.
“I don’t think we’re looking at bunches of wolves in Southern Oregon.
“It’s going to be a while before we get anywhere close to those numbers anytime soon,” she says.