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Wolf locations could become public record someday

Trying to get a straight answer from biologists about exactly where wolf OR-7 and his young family live in the wilds of the south Cascades has been a study in how lips can move without saying much of anything.

The Global Positioning System coordinates captured daily from OR-7's transmitting collar are secrets state and federal biologists share only among themselves to ensure the wolves aren't disturbed or, worse, killed.

The blipping information is even exempt from disclosure from state public-records laws that hide from public eyes some identifying information about species classified in Oregon as threatened or endangered.

The most specific answer you'll get out of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife usually is that the wolves are in remote forests in eastern Jackson County.

But tracking down Southern Oregon's most famous fauna could become a participatory sport for photographers, cattle producers and others if changes in the legal status of Oregon's wolves force that GPS data to become public.

And whether that information becomes too much information likely will become a very public debate, not just for wolves, but for other GPS-collared big-game animals such as big bucks and bulls.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will be at the Jackson County Expo today and will get a briefing on the potential beginning of a process next year to delist wolves in Eastern Oregon from Oregon Endangered Species Act protections.

If wolves are delisted, that would remove the exemption ODFW uses for not telling ranchers, wolf advocates and journalists the GPS coordinates when asked, and it "probably" would lead to the full disclosure of all the collared wolves' coordinates, says Ron Anglin, of ODFW's Wildlife Division.

"If you offer it to one (interest group), you offer it to all," Anglin says.

Wolves in far Eastern Oregon — east of highways 395, 78 and 95 — currently are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act but are listed under the state act. So anyone who asks for wolf GPS coordinates in Eastern Oregon would get them if the state delisting occurs.

OR-7 and any Oregon wolves west of those highways are still protected under the federal act. So providing GPS information about OR-7 and his pack-in-the-making could be considered illegal harming or harassing of protected wildlife as long as he, his mate and three pups remain where they are, Anglin says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, is mulling whether to propose delisting of the Rocky Mountain population of wolves, whose range includes Oregon, Washington and California.

Depending upon that outcome and the almost guaranteed federal lawsuits over that decision, OR-7's exact location could become a matter of public fodder.

Wildlife managers have several reasons why they don't want people trampling around wolf dens, beyond the obvious fact that they don't want wolves intentionally harmed simply because of their presence. Having forays into the woods by groups of wildlife photographers and others captivated by OR-7's very public journey in search of a mate could easily put the wolves at risk and even disturb pack dynamics, Anglin says.

"We have people who want locations given out and people who don't want them given out," Anglin says.

"Up until now, we've said no," Anglin says. "We don't feel from a conservation standpoint that making that available is appropriate."

OR-7 has been making world-wide headlines since September 2011, when he became the first known wolf in western Oregon since 1937 and the first known wolf in California since 1924.

Pictures of his mate and three known pups have bounced around the Internet. OR-7 even has his own Twitter account.

While OR-7 has never been associated with livestock damage, some wolves in Eastern Oregon certainly have been. That's why cattle producers get voice or text messages when a collared wolf is known to be in the area of their herds. But the location is reported only as within a grid and not pinpointed.

If a delisting of wolves occurs and real-time GPS data on their locations become public record, agencies such as ODFW could decide that GPS collars on animals such as wolves simply aren't worth the risks.

"That could have a dramatic impact on how we manage things, from a science perspective," Anglin says.

Instead of giving vague answers about where wolves such as OR-7 are, agency biologist's lips would go mum completely.

Knowing a little about OR-7 now could end up being better than knowing nothing about his whereabouts later.

"It's really a fascinating public-policy debate," he says. "Our desire for information, where does it cross over a biological line and cause more harm than good?"

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

One of OR-7's pups was captured on camera July 12 in this photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.