Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

After wandering more than 200 miles from his Eastern Oregon pack, a young wolf was recently tracked in the Ochoco Mountains near Prineville and could still be roaming Central Oregon.

“It's an impressive journey,” said John Stephenson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator for Oregon.

The wolf, known as OR-3 by wildlife managers, is wearing a radio collar but hasn't been located in more than two weeks, Stephenson said Thursday. Flying in a plane over the Ochocos on Sept. 29, he picked up the signal of OR-3's collar in northern Crook County.

Efforts to find the signal from the ground since have been unsuccessful, so Stephenson said he plans to fly over again this week.

Since their reintroduction by wildlife managers to Idaho in the 1990s, wolves have spread recently into Oregon and have become a cause for controversy. While there have been unconfirmed sightings of wolves around Sisters and Santiam Pass in recent years, OR-3's trek marks the first known travels of a wolf in Central Oregon since a state-sponsored killing off of wolves ended in the 1940s.

Ranchers whose cattle graze in the Ochocos didn't welcome word of the wolf's return. They said wolves attack their animals and that the best way to stop them is by shooting them. Since wolves started their comeback in Oregon in 2008, the ranchers said they've been bracing for them.

“It doesn't take them long to cover a lot of territory,” said Doug Breese, a 69-year-old Prineville rancher.

On the move

Once a member of the Imnaha pack, one of three known wolf packs in northeastern Oregon, the 3-year-old, black wolf set out on his own in May, said Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He said it's normal for wolves to leave their pack around age 3 to seek new territory and possibly a mate. It's also common for them to go far from their packs.

“That is one thing that wolves do well is cover a lot of land,” Morgan said.

Dispersed wolves like OR-3, as wildlife managers call them, have been documented as far as 600 miles from their packs, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another wolf from the pack — OR-7, a 2-year-old gray wolf — left the pack in September and has been tracked to Harney County, about 150 miles away. The state is tracking 14 other wolves, Morgan said, but those have stayed in or close to northeastern Oregon.

State scientists put the radio collar on OR-3 on Feb. 12, 2010, more than a year before he left the pack. At the time he weighed 97 pounds. After he left the pack in May his whereabouts were unknown until a hunter captured an image of him in July with a trail camera he'd set up near Fossil in Wheeler County.

From July until mid-September, the wolf's radio signal showed him staying near Fossil. Stephenson said he thought OR-3 had found his new territory.

“It seemed to have localized there for a while,” he said.

Then he moved, with Stephenson finding him in the Ochocos during a late September flyover of the mountains.

While some wolves in the state have GPS collars that send location information to a satellite four times per day, those collars cost about $3,000 each and don't last as long as VHF radio collars, which cost less than $1,000 each, Morgan said. The GPS collars last about three years while the VHF collars may last up to five.

Kill orders for wolves, considered endangered

While the goal of Stephenson's search for OR-3 in Central Oregon is simply to track where the animal is going, state wildlife managers were looking for his father — who is wearing a GPS collar — in late September to kill him. While the state has a plan to recover wolves, it comes with the caveat that they may be killed if they attack livestock frequently.

During the past 11⁄2 years, wolves from the Imnaha pack, which now has four wolves, have been confirmed to have killed 14 head of livestock. After GPS data showed that OR-3's father was in the location where wolves killed a calf near Joseph on Sept. 22, the state issued a kill order for him and another wolf in the pack.

After a trio of conservation groups filled an appeal to the kill order on Oct. 5, a state appeals judge issued an order temporarily stopping the hunt for the wolves. Now the appeals court is trying to determine whether Oregon's wolf plan coincides with endangered species protections. Wolves are listed as endangered under the state Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also lists wolves as endangered in the western two-thirds of Oregon under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The differences in listings led the state to manage wolves in Eastern Oregon, where most are currently found, and the federal government to manage them in the rest of the state.

Local livestock concerns

Since OR-3 started his trek from Eastern to Central Oregon, there haven't been any reports of livestock being killed where he has roamed, Stephenson said.

That doesn't ease the concerns of Central Oregon ranchers like Breese, who has about 200 head of cattle on 5,000 acres in the Ochocos.

If more wolves move here, they could become a problem for ranchers, Breese said. Wolves gang up on livestock, killing the easy prey, he said.

“The only way to defend livestock from wolves is to shoot (the wolves),” Breese said.

The Oregon wolf plan calls for their return throughout the state, and they're beginning to repopulate their old territories, as OR-3's presence in Central Oregon shows, said Josh Laughlin, the Bring Back Wolves campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands. The nonprofit, which has offices in Eugene and Alaska, was among the conservation groups that filed an appeal to stop the kill order for wolves in the Imnaha pack.

As wolves continue their return to more of the state, Laughlin said, ranchers will have to accept that the danger of wolf attacks on livestock is part of raising animals in the West and that ranchers should try to use nonlethal methods to protect them. Those include electric and flagged fencing and “range riders,” or cowboys who patrol the backcountry for wolves on horseback.

“Time and tolerance are going to define wolf recovery in Oregon,” Laughlin said.

Video: Wolf from Imnaha pack

This video taken by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on May 10, 2011 shows a 3-year-old male wolf from the Imnaha pack.