Lone wolf traveled 8,700 miles looking for a mate
Found dead in California
Published : Tuesday, 11 February, 2020 at 12:21 PM Count : 464
An endangered female gray wolf known as OR-54 didn’t live long enough to find a mate, despite making an 8,700-mile meandering journey through three states looking for one.
It had been weeks since biologists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were able to track the gray wolf’s movements.
She had been crisscrossing Northern California for nearly two years, after she separated from her pack in Oregon and traversed state lines. Biologists had followed her movements using a radio collar that wildlife specialists in Oregon placed around her neck in 2017.
Since January 2018, she covered more than 8,700 miles, loped through nine counties and went back and forth between Oregon and California twice. She even ventured briefly into Nevada, apparently in search of a mate, according to wildlife officials.
Then, in December, the collar went silent.
Earlier this month, a flurry of data came pouring in from one location in Shasta County, a sign she had stopped moving. Biologists went searching for the wolf, and on Feb. 5, they finally located her.
“Unfortunately, what they found was her carcass,” Jordan Traverso, a department spokeswoman, said.
The death has devastated biologists at the department and conservationists who became invested in the remarkable journey of the wolf known as OR-54, so named because she was the 54th wolf collared by Oregon wildlife officials. She was also the offspring of OR-7, a male well known in some circles for crossing into California in 2011, becoming the first wolf to appear in the state in about 100 years.
Wolves are prolific breeders, biologically driven to break off and start their own packs. The average wolf will travel 50 to 100 miles to find a mate, and some will travel hundreds more, according to Misi Stine, outreach director at the International Wolf Center in Minnesota.
But the distance OR-54 covered in two years was “extraordinarily long,” she said.
“She’s going to be one of those ones who people say, ‘Wow, she was exceptional,’ because we know her story,” Ms. Stine said.
The circumstances of her death are under investigation. The department said in a statement on Thursday that it “takes very seriously any threats to this recovering wolf population,” adding, “We remind the public that killing a wolf is a potential crime and subject to serious penalties, including imprisonment.”
Biologists have not said where the carcass was found.
OR-54 was mythic not just for the vast distance she covered or her famous father: She is also believed to have killed several calves in Plumas County and surrounding areas.
OR-54 “absolutely has been the subject of lots of conversation and concern,” said Dan Macon, a sheep rancher in Northern California and the president of the California Wool Growers Association. “She killed a significant number of cattle.”
The return of the wolf to California has also had an indirect impact on the health of livestock animals, which can become distressed by the smell, sight and sound of wolves. That stress can lead to low birth weight in calves and miscarriages, Mr. Macon said.
Even a small number of wolves can have a devastating effect on a rancher’s business, according to Roger Baldwin, a wildlife management researcher at the University of California, Davis.
“The ranching community subsists on a very tight margin,” he said. “So even just a little bit of an extra cost and loss of income can be what makes or breaks a ranching family.”
American settlers began driving the gray wolf out of the lower 48 states more than 150 years ago. To hunters, the animals were competition for elk and deer, while others saw them simply as dangerous predators who threatened livestock and humans.
After the gray wolf began receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, populations began to rebound. Last year, federal wildlife officials proposed stripping protections from the animal, citing the significant increases in its numbers across the country.
Officials estimate that there are now 15 to 20 gray wolves in California, part of a resurgence across the western United States that has led to both fascination and fear.
In 2018, Desiree Jackson, 37, was driving through Chester, Calif., when she saw an enormous canine — too big to be a dog — loping near the road. Convinced it was a wolf, she pulled over to record the animal’s movements.
“Oh, she was beautiful,” Ms. Jackson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Ms. Jackson said wildlife officials later called her and told her that was OR-54. Ms. Traverso said she could not confirm that the video showed OR-54, but given the location and time of the recording, it was probable, she said.
After Ms. Jackson posted the recording on YouTube, she was shocked to receive angry calls from people telling her she should have shot it on the spot.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I could not do that. She was just living her life, trying to find love.”
Ms. Traverso declined to say whether department officials suspected foul play, but she confirmed that a necropsy was being conducted.
In 2018, state wildlife officials opened a criminal investigation into the death of a male wolf who was killed that December, four days after the wolf is believed to have scavenged a calf that died of natural causes.
According to Ms. Stine, OR-54 could have died under any number of circumstances: an illness, an accident in the wild or even by an animal she was trying kill. A bison, elk or even a full-grown cow can deliver a fatal kick to a wolf.
OR-54 was believed to be 3 to 4 years old. A wolf that survives in the wild past 6 or 7 is considered very old, Ms. Stine said.
“Wolves live very fast, hard lives,” she added.
It is tempting to think OR-54 was lonely or bereft in her final days without a mate, Ms. Stine said.
“That’s a human thing that we do,” she said. “We know that animals have emotions, but we don’t understand how those emotions play out. She was just doing what she needed to do to survive.”
The New York Times/ALM