Wolf makes big tracks in California

Posted by Christine, February 4, 2012

The NY Times reports:

SAN FRANCISCO — On the Chinese calendar, this week ushers in the year of the dragon. But here, it feels a lot more like the year of the wolf.

Richard Cockle/The Oregonian, via Associated Press

John Stephenson, a biologist, measured the stride of the gray wolf known as OR7 in Crater Lake National Forest, Ore., in December. More Photos »

Allen Daniels/The Medford Mail Tribune

Officials say this image from a trail camera in south Oregon is probably of OR7. More Photos »

On Dec. 28, a 2 1/2 -year-old gray wolf crossed the state line from Oregon, becoming the first of his species to run wild here in 88 years.

His arrival has prompted news articles, attracted feverish fans and sent wildlife officials scrambling to prepare for a new and unfamiliar predator.

“California has more people with more opinions than other states,” said Mark Stopher, senior policy adviser for the California Department of Fish and Game. “We have people calling, saying we should find him a girlfriend as soon as possible and let them settle down. Some people say we should clear humans out of parts of the state and make a wolf sanctuary.”

The wolf, known to biologists as OR7, owes his fame to the GPS collar around his neck, which has allowed scientists and fans alike to use maps to follow his 1,000-mile, lovelorn trek south from his birthplace in northeastern Oregon.

Along the way, OR7 has accrued an almost cultlike status.

“People are going to get wolf tattoos, wolf sweaters, wolf key chains, wolf hats,” said Patrick Valentino, a board member with the California Wolf Center, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization.

In Oregon, students participated in art contests to draw OR7’s likeness and a competition to rename him (the winner: “Journey”). This month, people across the country attended full-moon, candlelight wolf vigils organized by groups with names like Howl Across America and Wolf Warriors.

As with seemingly all wayward and famous animals these days, the wolf has a lively virtual existence on social networking sites like Twitter, where at least two Twitter accounts have been posting from the wolf’s perspective.

“Left family to find wife & new home. eHarmony just wasn’t working for me,” read one Twitter profile. Another account, which describes the wolf’s hobbies as “wandering, ungulates,” recently had in a post: “Why is everyone so worried about my love life?”

The wolf’s presence has also set off more practical responses from state wildlife officials, who are hustling to prepare for what they now see as the inevitability of wild gray wolves here.

In mid-January, the California Department of Fish and Game put up a gray wolf Web site that includes a map of OR7’s trek and a 36-page explainer on the species. The department has already begun a series of public meetings with local governments in the state’s northern counties, where wolves are most likely to take up residence first.

Biologists say that OR7 is unlikely to survive long hunting alone without a pack and that it could be as many as 10 years before wild wolf packs roam northern California. Still, state and federal wildlife officials met Friday to discuss a strategy for wolves.

Next month, state biologists will get training by the Agriculture Department to identify livestock killed by wolves.

Once widespread across much of the country, gray wolves were nearly extinct in the contiguous United States by the early 20th century, killed by government trappers, ranchers and hunters. In 1974, the gray wolf was listed as endangered under the newly established Endangered Species Act. Then in 1995 and 1996 wildlife officials released 66 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, an area that is now home to nearly 1,700 wolves.

Wolves have been remarkably successful in reinhabiting their old terrain. In recent years regulators removed wolves from the endangered list for much of the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions. In Idaho and Montana, they can be legally hunted.

In California, gray wolves remain protected under federal law, and the recent appearance of one has flared up large predator agita among ranchers.

“I’m afraid somebody will step up and take this wolf’s life in their own hands,” said Darrell Wood, a cattle rancher. “There are huge state and federal penalties for killing a wolf.”

Mr. Wood’s family has been raising cattle in Lassen County — where OR7 is now and where the state’s last wolf was shot in 1924 — for six generations. “I just hope it wasn’t a relative of mine who shot him,” said Mr. Wood, 56.

Other area residents seemed more interested in the wolf’s place in the mythological pantheon. “What’s next, sparkly vampires?” asked a commenter on a Lassen County Times article about the wolf, an apparent reference to “Twilight,” the vampire and werewolf series.

Ardent wolf fandom and ire do not surprise Ed Bangs, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s recently retired wolf recovery coordinator. “When wolves come back, one side says it’s the end of civilization, our children will be dragged down at the bus stop,” he said. “The other side thinks nature is finally back in balance and can we all have a group hug now.”

California will see the same divisions, said Mr. Bangs, who in his 30 years in gray wolf management attended hundreds of contentious meetings with residents, ranchers and environmentalists.

“I like to say wolves are boring,” he said, “but people are fascinating.”

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