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Father-daughter team works for an elusive shot of OR-7

BUTTE FALLS — Mark and Jennifer Vargas trudge through snow in the Cascade Mountains following a string of big, fresh cougar tracks, but it is an even larger and more famous apex predator they're after.

The cougar, which hours earlier had walked down this Forest Service backroad, no doubt was headed toward a picked-over elk carcass near where the Vargases a week earlier had spied fresh prints and scat left by the gray wolf known as OR-7.

Now the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and his 16-year-old daughter are headed to check a trail camera they had stealthily trained on the carcass from a nearby tree. They hope it contains images of OR-7.

Mark Vargas walks ahead in snowshoes, blazing more than just a metaphorical trail for Jennifer to follow.

"I'm glad I get to do this and feel this," says Jennifer, a Phoenix High School sophomore. "It's something I'll never forget."

Fitted with a collar sporting both GPS and VHF transmitters, OR-7 has been followed by biologists and a captivated public ever since he broke away from Northeast Oregon's Imnaha pack more than a year ago and set out on a southwestern path toward fame.

When he crossed the Cascade crest 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. In the ensuing 15 months, articles about his long and fruitless search for a mate have filled newspaper pages and swallowed air time on five continents.

Precious few photos have been captured of the now 4-year-old wolf, and none by state or federal biologists.

"Getting that would just be cool," Mark Vargas says.

When OR-7 crept back into Jackson County on March 12, after wandering for months in Northern California, Vargas decided to try to become the first biologist to photograph him, and he picked Take Your Daughter To Work Day to do it.

The Vargases drove to a remote forest location near the spot where the last "ping" from the animal's GPS collar had been registered, then he used a VHF receiver to get even closer. From the readings he received, he knew OR-7 had to be within 100 yards of them, perhaps was even staring at them from the thick brush.

At an intersection of logging roads, they found fresh tracks, then fresh tracks with a little blood, and then the carcass of the yearling elk.

"It was a complete adrenaline rush," Jennifer says.

The snow revealed tracks from a menagerie of critters all at work on the carcass. Coyotes, ravens and later a cougar all took turns chowing on the winter kill, a wolf's seasonal staple.

So they affixed the motion-activated camera to a Douglas fir trunk, aimed it at the carcass and left.

Now, a week later, the Vargases are walking single-file along the cougar tracks toward the carcass, when the elder Vargas stops.

"I can smell the elk carcass now," he says.

Then, in a small clearing, where last week's snows have since melted, he spots the elk's rib cage, which has been picked almost completely clean.

From past GPS pings, Vargas knows OR-7 hung around this exact location for at least three hours after they left the previous week.

"I think he got a belly full for two or three days here," he says. "It was full of meat."

The elk's skull is off to one side, with a large hole where the wolf's teeth pierced the bone. Nearby, a femur lies in some leaves, chewed in half.

"Just to snap a femur like that in half, you have to be impressed by the power of that animal," Vargas says.

Then the four Vargas eyes all turn to the camera. A gauge shows it has captured nine minutes of video, mostly in snippets of 5 to 15 seconds.

"Depending upon how much of it is ravens and coyotes, I hope we got some footage of the wolf on here," Vargas says.

They collect the camera and retrace their tracks to their truck.

Vargas pops the memory card out of the trail camera and into his computer and uploads some short videos.

One video shows the Vargases setting up and aiming the camera before walking away last week.

Then comes video of the Vargases walking up to the carcass today, surveying the bones and removing the camera from the tree.

In between, there's nothing. No raven. No coyote. No cougar. No OR-7.

"Well, that's a downer," Jennifer says.

The camera must have malfunctioned, Vargas says. These things normally pick up small mice flitting about at 30 yards, so how could it miss a wolf?

"That carcass gets completely consumed, and it picks up nothing," Vargas says to no one in particular.

Field biology trumped by technology.

The world will have to wait a little longer for new OR-7 shots.

And the Vargas-family discovery shrinks from significant catch to a story, to be retold at future Vargas get-togethers, of the one that got away.

"Dang it," he says. "I wanted that wolf. But he's just not there."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Vargas and his daughter, Jennifer Vargas, examine the ground near a picked-over elk carcass where lone wolf OR-7 was known to have been feeding. They were there to retrieve a trail camera they set up earlier in the week in hopes of capturing video of the elusive wolf. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch