In search of OR-7

Scientist spends day trying to spot wandering wolf

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

FORT KLAMATH — Despite a day’s worth of tracking, a federal scientist failed Tuesday to catch a glimpse of OR-7, Oregon’s famously well-traveled wolf. Still, he learned that the wolf is finding food, moving frequently around his new territory and still alone.

Originally from an Eastern Oregon pack, 2-year-old OR-7 left that corner of the state in September. He has since wandered close to Burns, through Crook and Deschutes counties and seems to have made a home over the last month in the woods between Upper Klamath and Crater lakes.

“Where they settle in, there is ample prey,” said John Stephenson, Oregon wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While OR-7’s more than 700 miles of travel have earned him media fame, his former pack — the Imnaha Pack — has become infamous in Eastern Oregon for its attacks on livestock over the past several months. Just days ago, a yearling heifer was found dead on private property in Wallowa County.

“The latest incident reaffirms that the pack is in a pattern of chronic depredation, which we expect to continue,” said Russ Morgan, state wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To stop the attacks, Morgan and other state scientists urge the killing of two wolves, including the alpha male, OR-7’s father. But the plan is on hold while the Oregon Court of Appeals considers whether it violates state endangered species laws.

Both the state and federal governments consider wolves endangered in the western two-thirds of Oregon. Only the state considers them endangered in the eastern third.

Wiped from Oregon by state-sponsored hunts in the 1940s, wolves are making a comeback. Reintroduced by wildlife managers to Idaho in the 1990s, the predators started moving into Eastern Oregon in 2008. Five packs now roam that area, including the Imnaha.

Hundreds of miles from both the Imnaha Pack and the courtroom, Stephenson searched for OR-7 Tuesday.

Elk calf eaten

At 6 a.m., the global positing system device in OR-7’s collar, which logs his location every six hours, showed he was along a dividing line between public and private land.

Stephenson suspected a carcass could be drawing the wolf to the spot, where thick woods met open range. He was right.

Arriving at the location at 9:30 a.m. Stephenson spotted the rib cage of an elk calf just across a fence. Nearby was its leg.

“This explains why he was here,” Stephenson said.

He was hungry. Because the carcass was on private land, Stephenson didn’t cross the fence to examine it. He said he wasn’t sure if the wolf killed the elk calf or scavenged it.

A passing logger, Ray Mitchell, 53, told Stephenson he’d freed the elk calf Friday after finding it stuck in the fence.

While he untangled the young elk from the fence, Mitchell said he didn’t try to stand it up because it might hit him with one of his hooves. He didn’t know how it died.

“I tried to give him a chance,” said Mitchell, who works for Plumley Contractors in White City.

Using a radio antenna, Stephenson tried to find the signal that OR-7’s collar emits between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day. When Stephenson points the antenna in the direction of the wolf, he hears a steady beep on his radio receiver.

The louder the beep is, the closer the wolf. At 10 a.m., the signal showed OR-7 might be on the other side of a valley. A short drive later, the beep was even louder, indicating OR-7 could be as close as a mile and a half.

Hot on the trail

Stephenson set off on foot, hiking into partly snow-covered woods to see if he could find any signs of the wolf and any indication if he’d found other wolves. Around noon, Stephenson found large, wolf-sized tracks in the snow — 5 inches long and 5 inches wide.

“I think this is our wolf,” Stephenson said.

There weren’t other, similar tracks nearby.

“If it was him who walked through here,” Stephenson said, “he was alone.”

Throughout the afternoon the signal came in stronger, then weaker. After spending four hours and covering about four miles on logging roads and hiking over land, Stephenson ended his search, for now.

OR-7 isn’t the only wolf Stephenson wants to find. His brother, OR-3, also traveled from Eastern Oregon to Central Oregon, but hasn’t been located since late September. At that time, the wolf, which has a radio collar rather than a GPS device, was in the Ochoco Mountains.

Stephenson has tried unsuccessfully to find OR-3 by plane. State scientists are set to search for the animal later this week.

While he didn’t find any sign of other wolves in the woods between Upper Klamath and Crater lakes Tuesday, Stephenson said he’ll keep checking as long as OR-7 stays there.

On the way out of the woods, as the sun dropped close the mountainous horizon, he found a second solo set of tracks. Older than the first set, the tracks indicate that OR-7 isn’t just passing through the woods.

He still wanders great distances in his new territory, however. Earlier this month, OR-7 moved 30 miles through wilderness overnight after spending time above 7,500 feet on the upper reaches of Mount McLoughlin.

“It is incredible the traveling ability they have,” Stephenson said.