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Biologists plan to recollar OR-7, maybe even some pups

Oregon's most famous wolf is set to get some new bling so he can keep working for Da Man.

Biologists plan to recapture OR-7 and replace the wolf's tracking collar — and possibly collar his mate and some of his three pups — to keep tracking Western Oregon's only known wolf family as they work their way toward pack status.

A federal biologist plans to set foot-hold traps in the area of eastern Jackson County in hopes of capturing at least one of the animals so it can be fitted with a GPS-transmitting collar similar to the one used to track OR-7's world-famous, 3,000-mile journey that led him here.

"It's kind of the luck of the draw in who you can get," says John Stephenson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist tracking OR-7 from his Bend office. "It will probably end up one of the pups because they're the most curious."

State and federal biologists have active GPS collars on 12 wolves, and 28 have been collared in Oregon since 2009, one year after the first known wolf migrated from Idaho into Oregon, according to Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wolf Program.

Oregon updates its wolf population data at the end of December, and last year's end-of-the-year count showed 64 known wolves, Dennehy says.

Oregon has eight known packs, as well as individual wolves and a new group of wolves discovered last month 30 miles north of Enterprise, Dennehy says. Collared animals are in all but two packs and that newly discovered group, she says.

"Having at least one per pack really helps with monitoring," Dennehy says. "Recollaring OR-7 will help track this group of wolves."

Not only are the devices used for locating and tracking the packs, they can also help biologists determine breeding success. OR-7's GPS coordinates helped lead to photographs of his mate and pups earlier this year.

Knowing their locations also allows the agency to warn farmers and ranchers when a pack is close to them, and the coordinates can be used to verify predation loss, Dennehy says.

Since he was collared, OR-7 has never been associated with livestock depredation, though his former pack was involved in livestock predation before and after he was collared, Dennehy says.

Right now, OR-7 and his family are considered a group of wolves, Dennehy says. The definition for a pack is four or more wolves traveling together in winter, she says.

They will not be considered an official breeding pair until at least two of the new pups survives through December.

"Often we don't make those distinctions until winter," she says.

OR-7 was a young member of Oregon's Imnaha pack when he was collared in February 2011, eight months before he left the pack in a "dispersal" trek in search of a mate and new territory.

He traveled south and west until he crossed the Cascade crest, becoming the first wolf in Western Oregon since 1937. He later spent more than a year traveling in Northern California, where he was the Golden State's first known wolf since 1924.

For more than a year, he has stayed within his home territory of eastern Jackson, western Klamath and southeastern Douglas counties.

The batteries in most collars die after about three years, but battery lifetime has been quite variable. OR-7's collar batteries are now 3½ years old.

Collaring wolves can be risky business, both to biologists and the animals, which can die from stress during or after collaring, Dennehy says.

Wolves are tough to trap in dense forest like this group's current habitat, which requires the use of foot-hold traps, Stephenson says.

If OR-7's mate or young are captured next month, blood will be drawn for DNA testing that can sometimes trace the wolves to their original pack, Stephenson says.

Last spring, Stephenson gathered scat from the area where the young wolves were spotted, but he was unable to secure enough DNA from the scat to trace OR-7's mate, he says.

About 60 percent of scat samples fail to provide enough genetic information for the DNA tracing, Stephenson says.

The scat-test failure has prompted speculation that OR-7's mate might be a wolf hybrid.

Stephenson says there is no evidence that wolf-dog hybrids can survive in the wild and mate with a wolf, and that biologists in his agency are "very confident" OR-7's mate is a wild wolf.

"We're not feeling like we have to prove this animal is a wolf," Stephenson says. "We don't have to do that with any other wild animal."

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 is captured on camera July 12 in this photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.