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Luck and a GPS led to OR-7 wolf pups' first pose for camera

Deep in the bowels of eastern Jackson County, John Stephenson quietly pushed his way through dense timber into a small clearing where he spied a black-tailed deer leg and he knew this must be the place.

He scanned the area and a small twitch of movement caught his eye, then the sound of scurrying paws behind a hollow log.

Then out popped two little black faces the likes of which haven't been seen in Western Oregon in 70 years.

Two young pups fathered by the famous wandering lone wolf OR-7 posed briefly in the Monday sun before slipping back into the hollow log — but not before Stephenson chronicled history.

"They were pretty wary," says Stephenson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "They heard the camera click and pulled back into the log. I was hoping to get a better picture, but I guess it doesn't have to be."

By Wednesday morning the first and only photo of the first confirmed wolf pups in the Oregon Cascades since the 1940s beamed worldwide, confirming what biologists suspected since spring — that OR-7's 21/2-year search for a mate was over.

Break out the cigars. OR-7 is a dad.

"It's pretty exciting to see they have pups," says Stephenson, who has been tracking OR-7 through his GPS-transmitting collar since 2011. "I only saw the two, but I heard more."

Biologists suspect as many as six pups are denned with OR-7 and his mate in an undisclosed location within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, part of OR-7's home range for much of the past year.

Stephenson and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Vargas discovered the den during a Monday foray into the area in an attempt to confirm the two adults had bred as believed.

Vargas says he and Stephenson collected scat and hair samples for DNA testing in hopes of determining which pack OR-7's mate came from, likely from northeastern Oregon, where wolves first migrated from Idaho in the late 1990s.

The pups likely are 5 or 6 weeks old and weigh 12 to 15 pounds, Vargas says. Their fur resembles that of the black female photographed this spring from trail cameras Vargas and Stephenson hung in the area where OR-7's GPS monitoring suggested there might be a den site.

There was no sighting of either adult during Monday's expedition, Stephenson says.

"The pups were just outside kind of playing around waiting for mom and dad to bring something to eat," Stephenson says.

"I got lucky, really," he says. "If I didn't see that movement, I would have left to check other places."

No one knows how the two adult wolves found each other, but Stephenson suspects the female was also wandering in search of a mate and they may have smelled each other.

OR-7's story began in February 2011 when he and his sister were tranquilized in Wallowa County, fitted with collars and released.

The sister, OR-8, had a VHS-emitting collar similar to the ones used for decades on deer and elk. She died a week after being collared, with no exact cause of death determined.

In September of that year, OR-7 left the Imnaha pack in the northeastern corner of the state and set out to find new territory and a mate. That's when his story caught the public's eye.

Most Oregon wolves on such journeys, called dispersals, have stayed in northeastern Oregon or traveled to Idaho. OR-7 went south and west, with the tracking satellite following his historic moves.

When he crossed the Cascade crest and into Douglas County in September 2011, he became the first confirmed wolf in Western Oregon since the last one was killed under a livestock-protection bounty program in 1937.

While in Jackson County, a trail camera set out in November by Central Point hunter Allen Daniels captured the first known image of OR-7's time on the move.

When he headed south into California around Christmas time, OR-7 became the Golden State's only confirmed wolf since 1924.

He wandered throughout Northern California and almost traveled into Nevada before doing an about-face and retracing his steps to Oregon after spending a year south of the border.

All the while, OR-7 managed to steer clear of livestock, yet he couldn't find a mate.

But trail cameras set up in OR-7's home range turned up several images recently of a black female wolf believed to be his mate.

Stephenson and Vargas waited until this week to look for the den and any sign of pups. The delay was, in part, over fears that spooking the family too early could entice the pair to move their pups at a time when doing so could be dangerous to the animals.

The biologists installed four trail cameras in the area and plan a return trip to check the images later this month, Vargas says.

ˆ­ˆ­ — Mark Freeman

Luck and a GPS led to OR-7 wolf pups' first pose for camera