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On the trail of the wolf known as OR-7

A wolf that split Sept. 10 from its northeast Oregon pack and is now wandering in southwest Oregon followed a path seemingly scripted from some Jack London knock-off documentary about how the first wolf in Western Oregon in 65 years might have gotten here.

This 2-year-old male ventured out of the Imnaha Mountains and across Interstate 84, bouncing through forest tracts while skirting towns such as Baker and Burns. He loped across deserts dozens of miles a day at times, slipping through parts of eight Oregon counties before settling, for now, in the remote forests of eastern Douglas County.

Russ Morgan is following the adventure of this dispersing wolf, known as OR-7, plotting information sent from a GPS collar fitted in February. Morgan catches himself looking at the map and smiling.

"There he is, 280 miles from home," says Morgan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's wolf program coordinator. "It's pretty fascinating and not unexpected."

OR-7's journey has followed a largely predicted pathway through a string of connecting habitat that has served almost as a wildlife highway from the Hells Canyon area of Northeast Oregon to the southern Cascades and into Western Oregon. And one day he could be joined by hundreds of his kind following the same route.

Various habitat studies conducted earlier this decade predicted that wolf packs, which first moved into far Northeast Oregon more than a decade ago, would naturally find their way to Southwest Oregon. Another study predicts that the wild lands of this region could sport as many as 120 wolves.

All of Oregon could eventually carry as many as 1,450 of these apex predators, with the majority of them settling west of the Cascades, an area that saw its last wolf shot dead for a bounty in 1946.

"It's a seemingly wayward journey, but it's not wayward," Morgan says. "Even if the direction seems random and the movement seems to be random, it's necessary.

"He might be a precursor to others," Morgan says. "He may find other wolves that are already there. He probably represents both."

The daily movements of OR-7 have been followed closely since the animal crossed the Cascade Divide between Klamath and Douglas counties, settling this past week in the remote Umpqua National Forest north of Mount Thielsen, ODFW spokesman Rick Hargrave says.

The trail was roughly predicted in a paper published last summer in the journal Conservation Biology. It grades and tracks habitat throughout the western United States and southern Canada, showing wolves could naturally hop-scotch all the way to the southern Cascades via connected habitats.

"Certainly there's a band of wild and semi-forested habitat that connects the Rockies to Southern Oregon," says Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, who has been tracking wolf dispersion in Oregon. "It kind of makes sense that it's a route a wolf would take.

"I just didn't expect it to happen so soon," Vaile says.

"Even though he's been hanging around there for a week now, there's still no way to know where he'll be next week," Morgan says.

About the only thing you can say about OR-7 and his current digs is he won't be there in a few months.

"The wolf's not going to stay there because it's not year-round habitat," Morgan says. "When there's six feet of snow there, the wolf's going to be somewhere else."

But when he does move, he will find large swaths of suitable wolf habitat anchored by large wilderness and other unroaded areas. These are largely public lands, generally devoid of people, with deer and elk present — all criteria for wolf habitat as described in a 2006 Oregon State University study.

That study concluded that Oregon could support up to 1,450 wolves on about 68,500 square kilometers of wolf habitat. Almost half of that habitat is in the Cascades, which could support up to 600 wolves, the study concludes.

The Klamath-Siskiyou Region has about 6,500 square kilometers of potential wolf habitat, enough to support 120 wolves, with those numbers likely to slide up or down based on wolves' impacts on deer and elk herds, according to the study.

A separate 2001 study, in contrast, estimated Oregon's potential wolf carrying capacity at 790.

The OSU study estimates that, over time, three-fourths of Oregon's wolves will be in Western Oregon, with their roots perhaps traced to OR-7 in future documentaries about wolves repopulating Oregon.

"Wolves will eventually tell us where they'll thrive," Morgan says. "Only time will tell where these wolves will be successful and where they won't."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.