Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wolf in eastern Shasta County faces tough travels; biologist says California is no haven

This Nov. 14, 2011, photo from a trail camera appears to show OR-7, the young wolf that has wandered across Oregon and into Northern California. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the photo likely shows OR-7, because a collar is visible on the neck, and GPS tracking data put him in the area.
Photo by Allen Daniels/The Associated Press 

This Nov. 14, 2011, photo from a trail camera appears to show OR-7, the young wolf that has wandered across Oregon and into Northern California. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the photo likely shows OR-7, because a collar is visible on the neck, and GPS tracking data put him in the area.
A Department of Fish and Game biologist in charge of monitoring a wild gray wolf that's made its way from Oregon to eastern Shasta County this week spoke bluntly and in stark terms Friday about the likelihood the wolf dubbed OR-7 by biologists will survive long enough to find the mate he's already traveled more than 800 miles hoping to locate.

"Most wolves don't successfully establish a new pack or even join a new pack," said Mark Stopher, a DFG senior policy adviser based in Redding. "They die along the way."
Stopher said while some wolves have been tracked traveling more than 6,000 miles as they seek a new pack or a mate, the vast majority don't make it nearly that far.

Instead, they're met with the harsh realities of life in the wild, where wolves get sick, starve to death or are mortally wounded while trying to take down a large prey animal like a deer or an elk, Stopher said.
Then there are the deadly human obstacles wolves encounter along what were once their historic ranges, things like cities and train tracks and highways.

Of course, hostile humans also pose a risk, even though the wolf is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, Stopher said.
The latter is the reason why so far Stopher's agency has declined to reveal OR-7's exact location to the public. If too many details are disclosed, there's a risk someone might try to hurt the wolf, Stopher said.

OR-7 A threat to livestock?

Indeed, not everyone is welcoming of OR-7.
In an interview last week with the Los Angeles Times, Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong said the wolf should be shot on sight because of the threat it poses to livestock and people.
She later softened her remarks in an interview with the Sacramento Bee.
"It's unfair to ask people to live with this dangerous predator," she told the Bee. "It's romantic, maybe, for urban people. But this affects our quality of life. It affects when we go out to get mail from the mailbox: Do we have to carry a gun?"

The last fatal wolf attack was in 2010 in a small southwestern Alaskan village, something experts say is incredibly unusual and unlikely to occur elsewhere.
But OR-7's Imnaha pack does have a history of killing ranchers' animals, though there have been no reports OR-7 has killed any livestock during his journey to California, Stopher said.

The Imnaha pack, which now consists of four other wolves since OR-7 left, killed at least 20 cattle between the spring of 2010 and mid-December, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported. The agency had been lobbying to have two of the wolves shot but was blocked from doing so by the state's courts.
Russ Morgan, the wolf coordinator for Fish and Wildlife, said the recent kills represented a "significant" change in the pack's behavior.

Stopher said "there's certainly a concern" OR-7 learned to kill cows.
But he said since OR-7 was collared 10 months ago, biologists have never tracked his location to one of the cattle kills.
OR-7 also left the pack after it started taking down fully grown cows, Stopher said.

'For the benefit of everybody'

While ranchers cringe, others applaud the wolf's return.
To portray the wolf in a more positive light, an Oregon wildlife group held an online naming contest and picked "Journey" as the winning name.
Bob Madgic, an Anderson wildlife conversationalist and author, said Friday wolves' reputations as brutal killers are unfounded. He said the myth they're uncontrollable killers has been propagated over the years by paranoid ranchers and the U.S. government, which paid bounties on wolves with the express purpose of making them extinct.

Though he doubts the lone wolf will stay in Shasta County, he says he sees the possibility of wolves coming back to California as an opportunity for tourism and healthier deer and elk herds, which he believes will benefit from the wolves' predation.
Madgic said he thinks ranchers could learn to coexist with wolves, though they'll certainly prey on their stock.
"I think it would help the entire ecology of California, and I think it would be for the benefit of everybody," he said.

So far, OR-7 has tried to stay away from people and cows, Stopher said.
"One of the things he hasn't done is he hasn't hung out in any intensive agricultural areas or gone close to cities," Stopher said.
And so far no one has reported to the DFG any wolf sightings, either founded or unfounded, Stopher said.
OR-7 stayed Thursday night in a forested area of eastern Shasta County where he's likely to find food and where he has ample cover, Stopher said.

Whether he chooses to stay in Shasta County is anyone's guess, Stopher said, though it's most likely he'll head back north or begin heading east.
If he does continue heading south, there's very little chance he'll venture far into California's populated Central Valley, Stopher said.

Why he's on the move

Stopher said OR-7's journey likely began because he's looking for a mate. In small wolf packs, typically only alpha females and males — the animals with the highest social status in the pack — breed.
The rest can either integrate into the lower ranks of pack society or they strike out on their own, Stopher said.
But both young males and females wander, particularly if they're born into small packs of 10 or fewer animals, like the four-wolf Imnaha pack from which OR-7 hails, Stopher said.

Wolves were introduced into the northern Rocky Mountains in the mid-1990s.
The first wild wolf crossed out of Idaho into Oregon in 1999. So far, there are just 25 wolves in Oregon, according to the state's biologists.
On Feb. 25, Oregon biologists snared OR-7 and fitted him with his collar. He also received a set of blue ear tags, according to the Oregonian newspaper.

He weighed 90 pounds at the time, though it's unclear what his current weight is. Male gray wolves can weigh up to 140 pounds.
In September, OR-7 began a southwest trek across Oregon's highways, mountains and deserts.
A photo taken in November by a deer hunter's remote trail camera near Ashland, Ore., captured OR-7's image for the first time.

Stopher said the wolf appeared healthy in the image.
For much of November and December, he stayed in southern Oregon's Klamath and Jackson counties before crossing into Siskiyou County on Dec. 28.

Wolf makes history

His entrance to the state was historic. Wild wolves hadn't lived in California since 1924.
Stopher said it's unclear whether OR-7 is of similar size to the wolf packs that once roamed California before they were hunted to extinction.
Though hunting and agricultural groups that decry the wolf's entrance to California say OR-7 is a much larger wolf than the wolves that historically roamed California, Stopher said there's simply not enough data to say one way or another.

"There's no basis for anybody to say that," Stopher said.
He said the last wild wolf in California was a sickly, three-legged animal shot and killed in Lassen County. It weighed a mere 55 pounds.
A specimen from Kern County trapped and killed two years before the Lassen County wolf was similarly sickly and small, he said.

No other specimens or historical data about California's wolves exist, he said.
"That's simply not enough data to make a conclusion," Stopher said. "I can't say it's not true but they can't say it is true."
If OR-7 does choose to stay in Shasta County, there's a small chance he could try interbreeding with coyotes or even dogs, though that possibility, too, is incredibly unlikely given how different the species' behaviors are, Stopher said.

First, OR-7 would have to find a coyote or a dog that's not scared of being eaten, Stopher said.
Wolves sometimes prey on dogs and coyotes, though packs' favorite preferred food is hoofed animals like elk and deer.
If OR-7 were female, the chances of interbreeding with the dogs and coyotes would increase slightly, especially if the female went into estrus, Stopher said. Typically female wolves go into heat once a year.
But even then, "it's a rare occurrence" for a wolf to interbreed and live long enough to produce hybrid offspring, Stopher said.

What's more likely is OR-7 will keep wandering in the hopes of finding another pack or a compatible mate, Stopher said.
In the long shot he does find a pack of wolves, there's one last hurdle.

Stopher said wolf packs often kill outsiders rather than embrace them.
Stopher said he thinks it's important to let people know OR-7 is facing long odds, even as they debate whether or not wolves belong in the state.
"His death is more likely than it is he finds another wolf," he said.