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Signs point to wolf pack’s demise

The end of the legacy that began with OR-7 gives ranchers, state a chance hit reset button

For months at a time, rancher Ted Birdseye could barely catch half a night’s sleep worrying about whether the Rogue Pack of wolves would strike his rural northeastern Jackson County cattle herd again.

Just the wait for the sound of barking dog or the howl of sirens meant to scare away wolves once they travel into Birdseye’s pasture poisoned his nights. It was even worse when the wolves did show up.

“I’d wake up with major adrenaline rushes,” Birdseye recalls. “I was making myself sick.”

But Birdseye is sleeping quite well these days, and it may come with the complete demise of the Rogue Pack, which was once the most brazen beef-eaters in the two decades since wolves returned to Oregon.

The pack’s founder, OR-7, has been dead two years, and his former mate, OR-94, was found dead of apparent natural causes in February within the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

And the pack has not had a livestock attack attributed to it since last Thanksgiving.

With no known matriarch, evidence of perhaps three wolves in the Rogue Pack’s known territory and no breeding success in two years, the Rogue Pack could end up a thing of the past.

Under Oregon’s wolf plan, packs in Oregon are defined as four wolves traveling together in winter. Should they not meet this threshold, the wolves would not be listed as a pack.

Should new wolves reconstitute a pack here, they would not get the Rogue Pack moniker, instead getting named after geographic features such as Rabbit Ears or Hyatt, state wildlife officials says.

“Wolves are dynamic,” says Rogue District Wildlife biologist Steve Niemela. “This is all very new to us. But it’s pretty standard stuff for what wolves do.“

ODFW will continue to monitor wolf numbers in the region, Niemela says.

But this apparent void in wolf pack activity in Jackson County represents a chance to hit a reset button on livestock predation, Niemela says.

Livestock owners can clean up “bone piles” where dead livestock are buried, and take other steps so future packs may not develop the taste for beef that has stained OR-7’s legacy.

OR-7’s story, which became an international symbol of the wild, 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 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 OR-7, wolves on dispersal journeys had stayed in northeast Oregon or traveled to Idaho, where Oregon wolves originated. OR-7 went south and west, with a tracking satellite following his historic moves.

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

While in Jackson County, a trail camera set out in November 2011 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, OR-7 became the Golden State’s first confirmed wolf since 1924.

And with it came fame. Three children’s books, a documentary purporting to travel his path and a contest by the group Oregon Wild to give this wolf a name all sprang up amid OR-7 fervor.

While his Oregon fame escalated, OR-7 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.

“He was a landmark wolf in so many ways,” says Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “He had the uncanny wolfy ability to show up in so many important ways.”

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 had served its purpose. Images revealed 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 OR-7.

A mate, at last.

A month later, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John 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.

Then in late October 2014, the three-year-old feel-good story took a turn.

A cow carcass was discovered in a pasture outside of Prospect, and GPS readings showed OR-7 was at or near the pasture three different days around the time of 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, which largely was intact, so it was classified by state and federal biologists as a possible wolf kill but officially unknown.

In November 2016, the OR-7 story changed again.

Wolves 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.

At the time, the Rogue Pack was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. But wolves were taken off that list and remain under state management here, though that decision is currently under review

OR-7 was not found during monitoring in the fall of 2019 and was presumed dead. But the Rogue Pack continued its livestock predation.

By August 2020, the pack had racked up 34 confirmed incidents since 2016, besting the Imnaha Pack’s 31 between 2011 and 2016. The Imnaha Pack’s patriarch, OR-4, was killed by aerial gunners for those attacks.

OR-4 was OR-7’s father.

In all, the Rogue Pack had 11 pups, of which eight survived into winter, ODFW statistics show.

Once extirpated throughout the West, gray wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and dispersed out of the park’s borders. The first handful of wolves wandered into Oregon from Idaho two decades ago and set up shop in Northeast Oregon before fanning out across the state.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.