Thursday, November 12, 2015

With radio collar out, scientists use howls to track wolf

By Peter Fimrite
Saturday, October 31, 2015
The most famous four-legged Oregon resident to ever tour California has gone off the grid, so to speak, but the authorities still have a foolproof way track him — by listening for howling wolves.
The radio collar worn by the wolf known as OR-7, whose historic journey through the Golden State made him an international sensation, blinked off recently, forcing wildlife officials to get out from behind their computers and actually go into the field to find him.

The battery on the collar, which was used to transmit the big canine’s location as he made his pioneering journey through California, ran out, said John Stephenson, the Oregon wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Bend, Ore.

The last GPS signal was picked up in February, and the radio telemetry element in the collar stopped working in May, Stephenson said. Wildlife officials have repeatedly attempted to capture the leader of what is known as the Rogue Pack and stick a new collar on him, but all efforts have so far failed.
Rogue Pack wolves playing
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Media: Courtesy of John Stephenson

“We are still able to keep tabs on him. I got a photo of him in September,” said Stephenson, who, before the batteries went out, had been plotting the wolf patriarch’s location near the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in southwestern Oregon, every six hours through the radio transmissions.

Rogue pack

“He is still rogue,” he said, when it was suggested that the wolf had not exactly gone rogue. “He is the Rogue pack.”

OR-7, so named because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in Oregon, left the Imnaha Pack in Wallowa County, Ore., in 2011 and traveled an estimated 2,500 miles through dense forests, over mountains, past lakes and over grass, range and marshlands in search of food and a mate in California.

His zigzagging path — averaging about 15 miles a day — through Siskiyou, Lassen, Shasta, Modoc, Butte and Plumas counties was, by all accounts, a remarkable journey that provided researchers with valuable data on wolf behavior.

Pack grows

The solo lobo, now 6 years old, left the Golden State in 2013 and promptly found a mate in Oregon near the Rogue River, around the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area between Prospect and Fort Klamath. There are now at least 7 wolves in the pack, not including the two pups sired this year, Stephenson said.

OR-7’s journey apparently inspired his brethren to make a rush on the Golden State. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife documented a wolf pair in southeastern Siskiyou County in the spring and summer. Trail cameras confirmed this summer that the furry couple had given birth to five pups.

Karen Kovacs, the wildlife program manager for the department, said genetic testing of fur and scat has confirmed that the wolf parents were not OR-7’s offspring. She said they are also related to the Imnaha pack members and apparently found their way to California on their own.

“We don't have collars on these animals at this point so it is based on what we could find out from our trail cameras,” Kovacs said. “We got images as recently as two weeks ago and the pups are now as big as the adults.”

Kovacs said there is no evidence the new pack in California has preyed on any livestock, but she admitted there is a great deal of concern among Siskiyou County ranchers.

“Have private property owners who own livestock seen the wolves. Yes. Have they expressed concern, yes,” she said. “The department being the state wildlife agency is challenged with the attempts to conserve the species and address conflicts where they occur.”

It is an age-old problem. Ranchers and hunting groups in California claim wolves are “killing machines”that gut calves for fun. The hoopla surrounding OR-7 and the ongoing uncertainty of federal protection prompted the California Fish and Game Commission in 2014 to list wolves under the California Endangered Species Act.

Re-evaluating status

There are now 80 wolves in 15 packs in Oregon, so many that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended Thursday that they be taken off the state’s endangered species list. It is a recommendation that, like the species, is likely to generate a lot more howling from both sides.

"Wolves are definitely reoccupying Southern Oregon and Northern California,” Stephenson said. “It looks like they will continue to expand now that these wolves are here, and they are having pups.”


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