Meet wolf OR7’s new pups; California moves to protect species

The wild gray wolf that famously roamed California in search of a mate is raising a litter of pups just over the state line in Oregon, wildlife officials have confirmed.

The news of offspring born to the wolf known as OR7 was confirmed by biologists working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Homing in on the signal from OR7’s tracking collar, they spotted and photographed two fuzzy wolf pups peeking out of a hollow log somewhere in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

There may be more pups in the family, officials said, because wolves typically produce a litter of four to six.

The finding, announced Wednesday, significantly increases the odds that wolves eventually will repopulate California for the first time since being exterminated by hunters nearly 90 years ago.

“If this pack persists and keeps cranking out pups in coming years, sure, that puts a lot more potential dispersers a lot closer to California,” John Stephenson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who captured photos of the pups, said Wednesday.

At a meeting the same day in Fortuna, the California Fish and Game Commission voted 3-1 to protect any future Golden State wolf residents under the state Endangered Species Act – even though there are none currently residing in the state. The action came after a prolonged debate that included an April meeting in Ventura.

“There is no species more iconic in the American West than this one, the gray wolf,” said commission president Michael Sutton. “We owe it to them to do everything we can to help them recolonize their historic range in this state.”

Wolf OR7 is so named because he was the seventh wolf to be radio-collared in Oregon. He became a media star when he dispersed from his home pack in northeast Oregon late in 2011 in search of a mate. He entered California in December of that year, and spent much of 2012 wandering northeastern California in a circuitous path that eventually covered thousands of miles. He returned to Oregon in March 2013 but remained near the California border and has crossed back and forth repeatedly.

OR7 is among the most wide-ranging progeny of a successful wolf reintroduction effort launched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995. The program started by transplanting 14 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park. Additional transplants followed elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains. These wolves formed new packs, and some of their offspring eventually dispersed to Oregon, which now has more than 60 resident wolves.

Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that OR7 left a scent trail everywhere he traveled. It is possible his offspring eventually will follow that trail into California when they naturally disperse around the age of 2.

“For California, this is saying we have a breeding population in a national forest that straddles the Oregon-California border,” said Weiss. “When those pups start to go off on their own, they will be following OR7’s tracks.”

Stephenson said OR7’s family can officially be considered a new “pack,” at least biologically speaking. He estimates the pups are about 5 to 6 weeks old. They probably were conceived sometime in February and born in mid-April. The biologists did not approach or handle the pups or the two adult wolves, but merely observed them.

On Monday, in hopes of spotting the pups, Stephenson carefully stalked through the densely forested area where OR7 has been spending most of his time lately, and picked out a sunny clearing to wait with his camera.

“Wolf pups do tend to gravitate toward clearings. It’s like your pet dog: They like to sit in the sun and warm themselves,” he said. “I got lucky, actually. I had been sitting there for a while, and I just happened to see some movement. They heard the sound of the camera waking up, and they ducked back in a little bit. They’re pretty wary little buggers.”

Following past protocol, the exact location is being kept secret to protect the animals from poachers.

A mystery still surrounds OR7’s mate. Wildlife officials don’t know where she came from. It’s possible she has been traveling with OR7 for some time. On Monday, when biologists first observed the pups, they collected wolf scat from the area, and they hope some of it is from the female. The scat will yield DNA results that could reveal where she came from, based on comparisons with DNA from other wolves.

“In time, we’ll learn quite a bit more about her,” said Stephenson. “But I suspect she’s a long-distance disperser like OR7 was. I was surprised one made it all the way down and they found each other, but it happens.”

After the pups are about 8 weeks old, the adult wolves typically move them among a collection of “rendezvous sites” to familiarize them with their home territory. For this reason, the discovery of the pups will change how the wolf family is managed in at least one respect, said Elizabeth Materna, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The batteries in OR7’s tracking collar, which uses both GPS and radio signals, have outlived their typical three-year lifespan and could go dead at any time. Officials previously had no intention to replace the collar, she said, but they have changed plans and will replace it in order to better monitor the pack, probably this summer.

OR7’s travels in California prompted a fierce debate about how to manage wolves in the state. That debate culminated with Wednesday’s vote by the Fish and Game Commission to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act. Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin was the lone dissenting vote.

Even though no wolves are known to exist in the state now, most commissioners believe that will change. “Wolves will arrive,” said commissioner Richard Rogers. “There will be a population that fits the requirements (of the Endangered Species Act). The commission is bound by that law.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended against Endangered Species Act protection. It concluded, in short, that there are no immediate threats to the survival of the species in California. But the department is preparing a plan to manage wolves, which is being drafted with input from a committee that includes conservationists, ranchers and hunters.

Hunting groups and livestock ranchers urged the commission not to protect wolves, arguing the state needs maximum flexibility to manage the species. Some noted the federal government plans to lift its own protections in the lower 48 states because the species has rebounded.

Mike Ford, California representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, cautioned that protecting wolves could deplete their traditional primary prey, elk, which are far less numerous in California than other states where wolves have become re-established.

“Let’s face it: Wolves are recovered; in many states they’re no longer listed, they no longer need that listing, and we are getting dispersing animals,” said Ford. “I don’t know that listing is going to do anything more than add a layer of bureaucracy and expense, which they don’t really need.”

Others said the state Endangered Species Act could limit options for property owners who need to protect livestock.

“The wolf that is introduced from Canada is a major predator,” said John Rice, a Humboldt County cattle rancher. “The wolves will prey upon livestock because cows and calves are easy to kill. How will we expect to survive this major predator?”

Weiss, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said livestock losses in other states where wolves have been re-established are generally minimal, and can be offset by management techniques and reimbursement programs for losses suffered by ranchers. Research elsewhere has shown that elk and deer populations benefit from wolf reintroduction.

“What we know about wolf biology is that wolves are what make wild nature healthy,” she said. “It will improve the habitat for other species by keeping those herds on the move, which they do when wolves are around.”

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