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Decade in Review: OR-7's trek to Southern Oregon

When a 2-year-old gray wolf dubbed OR-7 for the number on its GPS-transmitting collar trotted southwest from Northeast Oregon in search of a mate in 2011, the cross-country journey created history.

He was the first known wolf in Western Oregon in six decades, then he turned south and became the first known wolf in Northern California seven decades. State and federal biologists regularly tracked his movement, and the world watched this story of a little wild returning to the Wild West take shape.

“He was iconic,” says Sam Dodenhoff, a wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Jackson County, where OR-7’s Rogue Pack has been anchored since 2014.

But at decade’s end, fame has turned to infamy.

Documentaries, children’s books, naming contests and journalists interviews made OR-7 a household word in six continents, almost like an ambassador for world reintroduction into North America without the specter of livestock predation that led to their extirpation throughout must of the West in the early 20th century.

“You could argue that he was the most famous wolf in the states,” says John Stephenson, a wildlife biologist who has followed OR-7 all decade for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But as fame followed OR-7 through the early 2010s, in recent years it’s turned to infamy.

Maybe out of convenience or perhaps due to age, OR-7 and his Rogue Pack’s taste for beef much like that of his father, OR-4.

They have since become the most notorious livestock predators among Oregon wolves the past two years, frustrating livestock interests who see OR-7’s exploits and wolves that have followed it as proof they don’t need the federal endangered species status that keeps lethal removal of predatory wolves off the table here.

“I think it’s a story of the reintroduction of a species and how this species has recovered from absolutely nothing to numbers that continue to grow,” says Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “They should no longer be considered endangered.”

But wolf advocates see that as simply a way to kill wolves in Western Oregon, particularly OR-7.

“He’s had the biggest political target on his back of any wolf in the state,” says Steve Pedery from Oregon Wild.

Love him or hate him, the 10-year-old wolf still is holding on in eastern Jackson County, getting captured on a western Klamath County trail cam in October and heard by Stephenson last month near Lake Creek.

“He must be tough to last all this time and maintain his alpha status,” Stephenson says.

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.

Later that year, OR-7 left the Imnaha Pack in the northeast corner of the state and set out to find new territory and a mate. That’s when his story caught the public’s eye.

Prior to him, wolves on such journeys, called dispersals, had stayed in northeast Oregon or traveled to Idaho, from which Oregon wolves came. 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 his time on the move.

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

And with it came fame. Three children’s books, a documentary purporting to travel his path and a contest by Oregon Wild to give this wolf a name.

Oregon Wild wrestled with the idea of anthropomorphizing this wolf, but they went forward believing it would help people identify with him more, Pedery says.

“It was a really interesting time when we were getting calls and questions and kids doing book reports,” Pedery says. “There were a lot of people interested in this animal.”

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. He couldn’t find a mate, yet he staked out his own home range — called an Area of Known Wolf Activity — in eastern Jackson and western Klamath counties.

In May of 2014, a trail cam showed that OR-7’s journey did find its purpose. The trail cam revealed an image of a black wolf squatting to pee. Definitely a female not yet seen in Western Oregon at the time. An hour later, the same camera showed an image of OR-7.

A mate, at last.

A month later, Stephenson was scouring the possible den area when he heard scurrying paws and discovered two wolf pups peeking out from a downed log and snapped their photo — proof that OR-7 was a dad.

Tests on hair and scat done by the University of Idaho revealed that OR-7’s mate was a wolf that, like OR-7, was born in Northeast Oregon but it did not reveal a specific pack.

“To those who celebrated it, this was a redemption story,” says Oregon Wild’s Pedery. “He did some amazing things.”

Then in late October 2014, the three-year feel-good story took a brush with ignominy.

A cow carcass was discovered in a pasture outside of Prospect, and GPS readings show OR-7 was at or near the pasture three different days around the cow’s likely death, and fresh wolf tracks were found at the scene.

But no bite or claw marks were present on the carcass that largely was intact, so it was classified by state and federal biologists as a possible wolf kill but officially unknown.

That changed in November 2016, and the OR-7 story changed forever.

Wolves had killed two calves and wounded a third over a four-day period in the Wood River Valley of Western Klamath County within the Rogue Pack’s territory, and while the pack’s culpability was likely, there was no smoking gun: OR-7’s GPS collar had died a year earlier and attempts to trap and collar a member of the Rogue Pack had been unsuccessful.

And it came at a time when wolf predation in Western Oregon became significantly different than that in Eastern Oregon.

Wolves in the western two-thirds of Oregon were — and still are — protected as endangered under the federal act. That differs from northeast Oregon, where the wolves are delisted and managed under Oregon’s Wolf Plan.

Under the state plan, four confirmed livestock predations attributed to the same pack over a six-month period could lead to a call for killing the offending wolves if nonlethal measures fail.

But not in Western Oregon, where lethal removal “is not an option for us where they are federally endangered,” Stephenson says.

No confirmed Rogue Pack livestock kills, in 2017, but 2018 proved to be a dubious breakout year for the pack.

The pack in 2018 became the largest inflictor of livestock predation in Oregon, with its 11 cow or dog kills that year, nearly twice that of the next highest pack and almost 40% of all wolf predation in Oregon that year.

The Rogue Pack kept its streak alive in 2019, and its seven confirmed cow kills and one mastiff guard dog kill put it on pace to become the state’s top predatory pack in 2019 as well.

Since the predation began, eight of those calves and two dogs killed by the Rogue Pack came on Ted Birdseye’s 276-acre ranch in northeast Jackson County. That’s the highest loss by a single rancher from wolves in Oregon, statistics show.

Birdseye, who in earlier times had a fascination with wolves and still marvels at midnight howlings, admits that he’d shoot Rogue Pack wolves if it were legal.

“It’s interesting to me that so many people can look at OR-7 specifically, and wolves in general, and be so positively enamored by them,” Birdseye says. “I was always kind of enamored, but I know the other side of the coin — their killing ability.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Two of wolf OR-7's pups peek out from a log on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on Monday. File photo.
FILE - In this remote camera photo taken May 3, 2014, and provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife the wolf OR-7 stands on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon's Cascade Mountains. Wolves killed two calves and wounded a third over a four-day period last week in a portion of western Oregon's Klamath County known to be frequented by gray wolf OR-7 and his Rogue Pack, though there is no definitive proof that his pack did the killing, authorities said. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)