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Gray wolf’s California quest comes to an end

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The gray wolf was native to California. Prior to OR-7, the last known grey wolf was shot in Lassen County in 1947. Photo by Gary Kramer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Michael Condon

  A rather unique and intriguing visitor recently brought his stay in California to an end.

  After more than a year of wandering through northern California, presumably in search of a mate and a new territory, a gray wolf known as OR-7 left the Golden State and returned to Oregon on March 13. OR-7 wandered throughout northeastern California but spent most of his time in Plumas and Tehama counties.

  Originally from northeastern Oregon’s Imnaha pack, OR-7 was fitted with a radio collar in February 2011 when he was just a pup. The nomadic gray wolf dispersed from his pack in the fall of that year to begin an epic walkabout.

  His trek in search of a new home and a mate is typical for a young male wolf. The distance and territory his quest has taken him to is not so common. Nor is the worldwide attention he has attracted.

  From northeast Oregon, OR-7 traveled south through the Oregon Cascades, becoming the first wolf known to cross west of the Cascades since 1947.

  In December 2011 he became the Golden State’s first documented wolf since 1924. His presence has led to speculation that OR-7 might be the wolf that would begin the re-establishment of a wolf population in the Golden State.

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This California Department of Fish and Wildlife map shows OR-7’s travels through northeastern California. OR-7 appears to have spent much of 2012 about 12 to 15 miles southwest of Lake Almanor. Click to see a full page version of the map.

  The re-establishment of wolves in California would not be welcome news to all — certainly not in a part of the state where cattle ranching is a big part of the economy.

  But I quietly hoped that OR-7 would find his mate and wolves would once again take their place as part of the California landscape. In fact, as I followed his travels, I thought it was quite possible that he had found a mate.

  OR-7 traveled great distances at a time through Oregon and then through Siskiyou, Modoc and Lassen counties. But that seemed to change when he got to Plumas County. His travels did not range near as widely. He roamed a much smaller area, mostly west of Lake Almanor and south of Mineral, for several months. It seemed logical that he found something here he liked.

  For a young male wolf in search of a mate, I could not help but think that what he found here may have been that mate he was searching for.

  It is true that no wolves have been sighted here for many decades. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be one here. After all, if OR-7 had not been collared as a pup would we have known he was here? I think that is part of the attraction of wild ecosystems; we can’t know everything about them. They sort of keep us humble that way.

But why was I hoping that OR-7’s presence in California would be the beginning of the re-establishment of wolves back into our wildlands?

  My desire to see the return of the wolf is not entirely logical. I eat beef and I know people who raise beef for a living. I have no desire to see my beef prices go up and the ranchers’ profits go down. While there has not been a single case where OR-7 has preyed on domestic livestock, livestock losses are an inevitable result of coexisting with wolves.

  I am also a deer hunter. When I moved to Plumas County in the 1970s the deer population was pretty healthy. Since then the deer population has declined significantly (with the possible exception of those deer living in the vicinity of my garden). Much of the decline can be attributed to the increase in mountain lion predation since it became illegal to hunt the lions in the late 1970s. Another major predator, especially one as efficient as the wolf, certainly isn’t going to help the deer population around here.

  So why the fascination with the iconic predators? Have I lost sight of the lessons of “The Three Little Pigs”? Was I not paying attention to the fate of Little Red Riding Hood? Aren’t those stories just a small part of our folklore going back many hundreds of years that were meant to teach us to fear wolves?

  And what of our great American heritage? Wasn’t the taming of the West one of our greatest achievements? Getting rid of predators that threatened the settlers’ livestock and the settlers themselves was a big part of taming the American West. It was as necessary as the roads and dams and the cities that followed.

  Maybe my fascination has to do with feeling like I missed a little something by not having been part of this great landscape before it was so effectively tamed. Sure I live in one of the greatest mountain ranges on earth. It is wild and beautiful, but not as wild as it once was. Part of me yearns for that wilder time, even if the bigger part of me is quite happy living in a time where my life is full of fascinating technology, access to enriching culture, abundant and diverse foods and efficient transportation. I don’t want to go back to those earlier times. But I do want to feel that wildness every now and then.

  I had the pleasure of living in Southeast Alaska for several years. I loved the idea that so much of Alaska remains untamed. I had many wonderful adventures there. I got to experience fish and wildlife and wilderness that were beyond anything I had ever experienced before or since.

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The grey wolf inspires both fear and awe. Wolves have been the subject of much folklore throughout civilization. The tales range from Little Red Riding Hood, tricked by a wolf dressed up as her sick grandmother, to Remus and Romulus, brothers who founded the city of Rome after being raised by a female wolf.

  I heard wolves howling on several occasions while in Alaska. For me there is no sound in nature that can match the howl of a wolf. It is a haunting and beautiful sound. It can send shivers down your spine and it reminds you that you are just a small player in a wild and wonderful world. Only once did I get to see a pack of wolves. It was a sight I will never forget.

  When you hear the wolf howl, or better yet see those beautiful animals, you know you are in a truly wild place. You are in an intact ecosystem with the predator who claims the top of the food chain making his presence known. That is something too few of us in this fast-paced modern civilization get to experience. It reminds us of our roots and our place on this earth.

  Wolves are fascinating, but not just because of the wildness they represent. They also have an intriguing social nature. Part of what makes wolf packs so interesting is that they are in some ways like our own society. A wolf pack is a very organized community. There is a well-defined hierarchy that is respected and enforced among pack members. Roles and rules are well understood. Whether they are hunting, playing or raising the pups, there is a high degree of communication and cooperation. A wolf pack is an extended family. Everybody pitches in to provide for the community and to raise the young ones. What a concept!

  In addition to being social, wolves exhibit behaviors that suggest a high level of intelligence. They also demonstrate playfulness and even a genuine affection and devotion towards one another. It is risky to assign too many human characteristics to wolves, but it is equally difficult to observe wolves and not see a bit of ourselves in them.

  Maybe the wolf speaks to us. It speaks about being wild, free and independent, and still caring and working together for the good of the family and the community.

  That may be a romanticized notion. But it speaks to me.

  I wish OR-7 well. And even though I didn’t get to see him or hear him howl, I thank him for making me stop and think and for taking me back to the wolves I remember in Alaska.

  And when I walk in the woods, I will try to be a little more observant. You never know who else might be wandering in those same woods.


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