OR-7's signal about to fade

Lone wolf OR-7's very public and historic trek across Oregon and Northern California could come to a blipping halt any day now.

The Global Positioning System collar that has sent regular electronic pulses to reveal his travels for the past three years has eclipsed its normal life span, and state and federal biologists have no plans to replace it.

The risks to biologists and the wolf and priorities for collaring other wolves means five-year-old OR-7 — named because he was the seventh wolf collared in Oregon — won't be recollared like his infamous alpha-male father, OR-4.

When his bling dies, his time working for Da Man will be over.

And when the final blip dies, so will the regular data followed by Oregon biologists and wildlife enthusiasts on six continents as OR-7 logged well over 3,000 miles before settling last year near Mount McLoughlin.

"As biologists, we tend to look at wildlife management from a population standpoint, not at individual animals," says Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the ODFW's Wolf Program. "But we were also impressed by all the interest this one wolf, OR-7, has created around the world."

Despite the dangers of collaring animals in the wild and the ethical question of whether collared animals truly remain wild, having an almost daily account of his travels proved not only useful but captivating, says Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild.

"A lot of people found parts of his story resonating with them because of that collar," Klavins says.

"When that collar dies, we'll never know his fate," he says. "But that could be OK. It's good to have a little mystery in the world."

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 subsequently died a week later and no exact cause of death was determined, Dennehy says.

Later that year, OR-7 left the Imnaha pack and set out to find new territory and a mate, and that's when his story caught the public's eye.

Most Oregon wolves on such journeys, called dispersals, have stayed in northeast Oregon or traveled to Idaho. OR-7 went south and west, with the tracking satellite following his historic moves.

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.

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 Christmas time, OR-7 became the Golden State's only confirmed wolf since 1924.

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, yet he couldn't find a mate. He is currently spending his time in eastern Jackson and western Klamath counties.

Since his dispersal, articles about his long and fruitless search for a mate have filled newspaper pages and swallowed air time worldwide.

Dispersal is a dangerous time for a wolf, Dennehy says. They travel long distances in unfamiliar landscapes that put them near towns and along highways, where they risk injury or death. A single wolf traveling through unfamiliar territory is also more likely to be killed by predators, such as cougars or other wolves, she says.

OR-7 has successfully run the gauntlet for the world to see.

"We always remind people that OR-7 is not unique," Dennehy says. "Wolves make extraordinary treks like this all the time. In OR-7's case, we just happen to know about it."

Klavins says the journey shows that enough connections between Oregon's wild places exist for animals like wolves to live without threats to people or livestock.

"There are still corridors of habitat, and to think he only got picked up once by a trail camera," Klavins says.

"He's been a great ambassador."

What he is not is a good candidate for a second collar.

Biologists prefer to collar breeding pairs or members of packs, and there is no indication that OR-7 is among them.

Collaring animals can be dangerous and time-consuming, and biologists would rather collar animals in other packs not sporting GPS collars to get information on their whereabouts and habits instead of an established bachelor like OR-7.

"I think we all agree we've learned a tremendous amount out of ... knowing where he's gone and what he's done," says John Stephenson, a Bend-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has tracked OR-7 on the ground and via computer.

"If he was part of a breeding pair or a pack, that's different," Stephenson says. "But to continue tracking a lone wolf, I don't know how much more we'll learn."

OR-4 has been collared four times, Dennehy says. He also once had a death sentence imposed by state biologists for killing livestock, but a court case about him eventually led to an agreement that spared him and created a new set of wolf rules for ODFW.

Oregon collared another wolf last week in Northeast Oregon, bringing to 24 the number in the state, Dennehy says.

OR-7 could be brought back into the fold, however, if evidence shows he's found a mate and started his own pack.

"We could find him and collar him again," Stephenson says. "It's not like we lose that opportunity forever."

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

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