“He was feeding here this morning,” the federal biologist says, looking across a fenceline at the carcass. “Where did he go from here?”
The 2 1/2-year-old male gray wolf known as OR-7, now famous for his 730-mile trek across Oregon, had spent the previous four days loitering near the south boundary of Crater Lake National Park, GPS data indicated.
The long pause was unusual, and Stephenson went to have a look and found the elk carcass. The elk had gotten tangled in the fence and OR-7 showed up soon after, the GPS showed. Wolves have great noses, Stephenson says, and OR-7′s sense of smell probably drew him in.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientist brought reporters along on his tracking expedition last Tuesday for a feet-on-the-ground sense of where the wolf is roaming and hunting.
“Our main goal today is to learn whether he’s found other wolves or if he’s by himself,” Stephenson says.
Putting away the GPS, he activates a radio-telemetry receiver with a directional antenna that resembles a 1950s TV aerial. An electronic sound suggests OR-7 is trotting southwest across the Wood River valley north of Fort Klamath toward the distant Sky Lakes Wilderness. He hops in his SUV and sets off in pursuit.
OR-7 is the first wolf in more than 60 years to officially take up residence in Oregon’s Cascades. He left Wallowa County’s Imnaha pack Sept. 10, spent weeks zigzagging across the state and now rambles across 100 square miles north and east of Medford. He’s one of 24 known wolves in Oregon, but the only one in the Cascades.
When biologists collared him last winter, they fitted him with a GPS unit, radio transmitter and blue ear tags. The capture apparently wasn’t to OR-7′s liking because biologists haven’t seen him since.
They have, however, charted his travels. And they’ve asked themselves: Is OR-7 alone or traveling with an uncollared female? Has he found love and a mate in the Cascades, and if so, will he establish his own pack? Or, absent other wolves, is he fated — in Stephenson’s words — to become a “biological dead end”?
“They are definitely a pack animal,” Stephenson says while driving along a narrow logging road overshadowed by tall pines. “But he’s a long way away from where other wolves are that we know about. My hunch is he’s by himself.”
At the edge of a deep forest, Stephenson parks the SUV, pulls on snow boots and leads off into the timber, making the best of uncertain footing in the crusty snow.
He holds the antenna aloft. “I’m getting an almost due-east” signal,” he says.
“I would guess about 1 1/2 miles. With this snow, we have a good chance of seeing tracks. Be as quiet as possible, and kind of stay behind me.”
It’s 1 p.m. when Stephenson comes upon tracks emerging from the woods and crossing a primitive road. At first, he thinks they were left by a cougar, but then it becomes apparent they’re OR-7′s prints.
The tracks are large compared to the prints of a big domestic dog such as a German shepherd — 5-by-5-inches, with a full stride length of 67 inches — this from an animal that weighed 90 pounds less than a year ago. Adult wolves typically range from 90 to 140 pounds, and Stephenson doesn’t know if OR-7 has gotten bigger or lost body weight since last winter, but he has big feet, he says.
“He’s north of us,” says Stephenson, straightening up. “There’s a drainage up here. Our best chance for a visual is to get above him.”
But the terrain is table flat, with no place to get above a wolf. Stephenson crunches on through the snow and loses the signal for a time. At 3:40 p.m., the signal returns and becomes strong.
“Keep your eyes open,” he whispers. “It’s on the move, and it’s heading this way. It’s definitely moving.”
But an hour later, little has changed except that the sun is setting. Now, if anything, the wolf is closer. Perhaps he’s come to check out the humans following him. Stephenson points the antenna at a clump of trees and underbrush about 50 yards distant.
“Other collars I’ve used, I’d say he’s right there,” he says softly.
But there’s no way to flush him out, and the approaching darkness means it’s time to leave the forest. Stephenson leads back to where he parked his SUV.
“We learned some things today,” he says.
Foremost among them: The tracks belonged to a single wolf, he says. That suggests OR-7 is alone and won’t be siring more wolves in the Cascades, he says.
Another impressive characteristic is OR-7′s wariness, Stephenson says. If you live in Oregon and want to see a wolf, don’t bother looking for this one, he recommends.
“Go to Yellowstone Park,” he says with a grin.
- Oregon wolf treks 280 miles, headed toward California (mercurynews.com)
- Time lapse: Crater Lake (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Lone wolf wanders near California border; last known wolf in state killed in 1924 (mercurynews.com)
- Wandering wolf inspires hope and dread (seattletimes.nwsource.com)