WOOD RIVER VALLEY — John Stephenson stops his government-issued pickup on the shoulder of Highway 62 and assembles a hodgepodge of cutting-edge technology and 1970s gizmos he'll use on his quest to sneak a peek at Western Oregon wildlife history.
Stephenson is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on the trail of OR-7, the gray wolf whose Jack Londonesque wanderings from the far corner of northeast Oregon to the south Cascades have captured worldwide interest.
After three months of well-documented travel, the 2-year-old male became the first confirmed wolf in Western Oregon since a bounty hunter shot the last one in Douglas County in 1946.
Since then, OR-7 has spent more than a month crisscrossing the Cascade crest between western Klamath County and eastern Jackson County, possibly staking out his new home territory.
Now Stephenson is trying to answer the question echoed by OR-7 followers on five continents — does he remain the proverbial lone wolf, or has he found his lady lobo?
"Obviously, it's intriguing that he's hanging out here, so we want more information," Stephenson says. "We want to know if he's found other wolves here. And if possible, I'd like to get a visual on him."
He studies a map detailing where a satellite transmitter affixed to a black collar around OR-7's neck indicates the animal was standing at 6 a.m., just three-and-a-half hours ago.
It's on a sliver of public land among a series of ranches in Klamath County's Wood River Valley, where Stephenson's pickup is parked.
Stephenson pulls out a television antenna that looks like one yanked off a chimney 35 years ago. The antenna is programmed to pick up a VHF transmitter emitting from OR-7's techno-bling.
The receiver crackles as he fans the antenna across the valley, but the feedback quickly turns to a rhythmic, electric pulse, and he stops.
"Hear those blips?" Stephenson says. "That's him."
When wolves reintroduced in the northern Rocky Mountains in 1995 first made their way into Oregon from Idaho in the late 1990s, biologists believed they would eventually find a home in the wilds of southwestern Oregon.
Some studies conclude the Klamath-Siskiyou region has enough wilderness areas and big-game populations to potentially make it suitable for up to 120 wolves, with wolf populations eventually sliding up or down based on their impact on deer and elk herds.
Before the area had 120 wolves, it would have to have one. And that first wolf likely would be a young male dispersing from his established pack.
Such a dispersal journey typically ends where he finds a sufficient prey base and comfort. If he eventually finds a mate, it's the beginnings of a new pack. If not, he's a biological dead-end.
But Oregon's 25 confirmed wolves heretofore have spent more than a decade in the northeastern part of the state. That's where biologists in February darted and collared three new wolves born into the Imnaha Pack responsible for livestock kills there.
Two year-old females were captured, collared, photographed and released Feb. 25. OR-7 got the treatment the next day, without any camera time, so there is no known photograph of it.
The animals were fitted with collars like those worn by OR-7's parents — the pack's alpha male and female — as well as his older brother, OR-3.
Every six hours, the collar sends a signal to a satellite. If there is a direct connection between the collar and the satellite, the satellite reads the animal's GPS coordinates.
From Sept. 10 through early November, those GPS coordinates outline a beeline to Southern Oregon, where he's spent the past month in a 100-square-mile sector. One blip at 6 a.m. Dec. 8 put him on the west slope of Mount McLoughlin in eastern Jackson County.
"I don't know if he was hunting pikas or what over there," Stephenson says.
The next morning, OR-7 was 30 air miles away in the Wood River Valley, where he has lingered for days in fields and nearby forest cover.
"I'm wondering if he has an elk carcass he's feeding on," Stephenson says.
Stephenson has been tracking OR-7 via computer from his Bend office. But he's on foot this day to answer questions satellites can't.
"The whole reason for going on the ground is to see if he's found company," Stephenson says.
So off in the pickup Stephenson goes toward that morning's 6 a.m. GPS ping, hoping the VHF transmitter will draw him to the wolf.
The transmitter readings send Stephenson and volunteer aide Lisa Lochner hiking down a gated road where they find their first break in Ray Mitchell.
Mitchell is a 53-year-old Medford logger working the area. He tells Stephenson that he helped free a yearling elk from a nearby fence four days earlier, and he thinks the elk was too injured to run free.
"That's bread and butter for him," Stephenson says.
Twenty minutes later, they spy the elk's picked-over rib cage in a field, not 50 feet from that 6 a.m. ping.
But the carcass is on private land, so they can't inspect it for wolf signs.
"That explains why he's been hanging around here the past couple of days," Stephenson says. "But where did he go from here?"
He fires up the VHF receiver again, and the blips are now due west.
OR-7's on the move, and so is Stephenson.
Hoping to intercept their target, he and Lochner loop around the valley past private land and onto another patch of public land. The receiver blips put him due east, somewhere off a cross-country ski trail coated in a crusty snow.
They set off down the trail, post-holing through the snow that reveals many secrets kept by the forest duff of summer.
The snow is pocked with tracks. Elk prints abound. A bobcat with dirty paws crossed the trail. Fox prints. A few dogs.
But Lochner spies a large depression at her feet.
"Ooh," Stephenson says. "That might be the wolf."
The track is a few days old and imbedded in the encrusted snow. It's 5 inches long and 5 inches wide. Wolf tracks are typically longer than wide. But it could be a splayed print skewed by melting snow.
The pair scramble off the trail and measure other prints. Lochner then finds one more than 5 inches long and about 41/2 inches wide, but with telltale nail marks.
"I'm pretty much 100 percent sure it's our wolf," Stephenson says.
The tracks reveal a walking stride of 67 inches. OR-7 must be well over 100 pounds now.
They fan out, looking for more sets. But there's nothing.
"When he walked through here, he walked alone," Stephenson says.
But it doesn't mean OR-7 is alone.
"Just because you find one set of tracks doesn't prove anything," he says.
The VHF receiver crackles toward the north now.
"The only thing left to do — find the animal," Stephenson says.
For hours Stephenson and Lochner post-hole through the woods, crossing roads and through piles of burning slash. Sometimes the blips are strong. Sometimes, they disappear and return in another direction.
"Either he's really close, or he's on the move, or both," Stephenson says. "If he's moving, we'll never be able to keep up with him."
As dusk settles in, the blips disappear and the pair return to Stephenson's pickup.
Ground-truthing OR-7's presence here is done, but the world will have to wait to learn whether he has a mate.
"We still need to find out if he's got company," Stephenson says. "We just don't know that — yet."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.