Remembering OR-7, the Wolf Who Journeyed Back to California
What is one wolf worth to the world? Ten years ago, a wolf called OR-7 showed us all.
On Dec. 28, 2011, this lanky, gray-colored wolf lifted a paw on the Oregon side of the border, set it down in California and kept on going.
When he was captured and collared by Oregon wildlife agency staff in early 2011, near his birthplace in northeast Oregon, he was designated OR-7 because he was the seventh wolf to be radio-collared since wolves started reestablishing in the state.
He was given the name Journey in a naming contest held after he left his birth-pack that fall and traveled 700 miles to reach southwest Oregon.
He became a wolf who made history when he crossed into California, the first confirmed wild wolf in the Golden State in 87 years.
California — and the rest of the world — laid a welcome mat down for him.
Across the globe, headlines announced OR-7’s landmark journey and what it might portend for California. In the same way a piton driven into a mountain face allows a rock climber to make progress, this wolf’s arrival in California showed the world that recovery of the species — in a state so diverse that its landscapes range from ice-covered mountains to sun-drenched beaches — was a real possibility.
OR-7 spent 15 months in California before returning to Oregon in the spring of 2013. During those months he ranged across seven of the state’s northeastern counties, searching unsuccessfully for a mate. In the process he traveled another 3,300 or so miles, covering ground, looping back, covering more ground, looping back again, searching, scent-marking, looking for the wolf of his dreams.
OR-7’s Remarkable Contribution to Wolf Recovery
OR-7 visited California several more times in the fall of 2013 and twice more in early 2014. But he was destined to settle down in Oregon.
In May 2014 a trail camera set up where he was ranging in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon showed OR-7 trotting by. The next day, in the exact same location, the camera captured an image of a black wolf squatting to urinate. The wolf’s posture signaled biological evidence of being female, and her presence was a celebratory sign that OR-7 had likely found a mate.
It turned out the pair had indeed settled down together and given birth to their first litter of pups, a joyous event they would repeat for the following four years.
But OR-7’s return to Oregon was not the end of his legacy in the Golden State. At least four of his offspring also made their way into California.
In late 2015 or early 2016, a son from OR-7’s 2014 litter dispersed to California, where he met up with a female who had traveled to California all the way from the northern Rockies. They paired up to form the Lassen pack and had their first litter of pups in 2017. They continued to have litters together in 2018 and 2019, giving birth in California all three years to OR-7’s grand-puppies.
The second of OR-7’s offspring to come to California was a female born in 2014. Dubbed CA-10, she was in Siskiyou County briefly in early 2017.
In early 2018, a third offspring of OR-7, a female born into his 2016 litter, came to California. Radio-collared and designated as OR-54, this graceful, athletic wolf far surpassed her father in miles traveled.
Over the next two years OR-54 covered nearly 9,000 miles in an unsuccessful search for a mate and territory of her own. During that span, she made three brief return trips to Oregon, an overnight to Reno, Nevada, and traveled the farthest south yet in California for a wolf in modern times, making it all the way to Lake Tahoe.
Sadly, her life was cut short. In early 2020 OR-54 was found dead in Shasta County and, like her father OR-7, made international headlines. Authorities have not yet revealed the cause of her demise.
Then, in late 2020, a male wolf from Oregon’s Mt. Emily pack, OR-85, was confirmed to have entered California in Modoc County and traveled west into Siskiyou County. Soon after, he was seen in the company of another of OR-7’s offspring, a female designated as WHA-01. Together this pair of wolves have formed the Whaleback pack. Their territory spans around 480 square miles in eastern Siskiyou County. In 2021 they had their first litter of pups together — producing yet more grand-puppies of OR-7 and continuing his lineage here.
There is hope for more. In May 2021 state officials confirmed a third wolf pack in California, the Beckwourth pack. This pack is composed of three wolves, one of whom is LAS-12, a granddaughter of OR-7. Breeding season for wolves is February, so with any luck, she’ll have pups next spring.
Why Legal Protections Are Critical for Wolves
The sole reason any wolves are returning to California is because the species was federally protected in 1974 after the federal Endangered Species Act was passed. Wolves badly needed that protection. There were once 2 million of these intelligent, social animals across North America, with hundreds of thousands of them in the lower 48 states. But European colonists and settlers killed almost all of them, aided by the federal government, which killed wolves on behalf of the livestock industry.
Once wolves were protected, the tiny population living in Minnesota expanded into Michigan and Wisconsin. Wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s and Arizona in the late 1990s.
In a few years’ time, the wolves in the northern Rockies began to move west into Washington and Oregon. A decade or so after that, wolves from Oregon started to trickle into California.
But while these wolf populations steadily grew, so did anti-wolf sentiment and political pressure from the livestock and hunting industries. This prompted repeated attempts by the federal agency charged with recovering wolves to instead strip the animals of their Endangered Species Act protection — long before the species was fully recovered.
The writing was on the wall. To successfully recover in California, wolves who came there or were born there would need strong state-level protections. And OR-7’s arrival was the impetus for that effort.
Because OR-7 came to California, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies petitioned the state to list the gray wolf under California’s state endangered species act. All of the science, hundreds of California residents who testified at hearings, and thousands who submitted written comments agreed that wolves should be fully protected in the state.
In 2014 the state fish and game commission voted to grant those protections, which make it illegal to kill a wolf in California except in defense of human life.
Because OR-7 came to California, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife convened a public advisory group, of which I was a member, to give input to the state on how wolves should be conserved and stewarded here.
In 2016 the department released the Conservation Plan for Gray Wolves in California. Since that time, as more wolves have arrived, the state wildlife agency has been doing outreach to livestock owners to help them learn measures and strategies for preventing any rare conflicts that may occur between livestock and wolves. The state also has ongoing investigations into the death of OR-54 in 2020 and the confirmed illegal killing of another wolf, OR-59, in late 2018.
The Future of Wolf Recovery in California and Beyond
Across the country federal protections for wolves were removed in early January of 2021 by a regulatory action put in place under the Trump administration. Immediately, Wisconsin held a wolf hunt that slaughtered at least 20% of its entire wolf population in under three days’ time. Scientists believe another 10% have been illegally killed due to the removal of federal protection.
In Idaho and Montana, where wolves lost protection in 2011 and have been subject to state-sanctioned hunting and trapping seasons ever since, the nationwide delisting in January emboldened those states to pass new aggressive laws and regulations designed to eradicate 85–90% of their wolf populations.
Already this year, more than 450 wolves have been killed in Idaho and at least 130 killed in Montana. Even some of the highly studied, world-renowned, protected wolves living in Yellowstone National Park have been gunned down, trapped, and strangled in snares when they’ve crossed the invisible boundaries of the park into Montana.
In the spring of 2020, state wildlife officials in Oregon announced that OR-7 was likely dead. He had not been seen with the Rogue pack, or at all, since the previous fall, by which time he would have been 10 ½ years old. This is a venerable age for a wolf; most only live five or six years in the wild.
In February 2021, OR-7’s only and longtime mate, OR-94, was found dead of natural causes in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. OR-7 spent a considerable amount of time in that area a decade ago, just prior to entering California.
OR-7 was loved. He inspired the writing of multiple books, two documentaries and a stop-motion animated film, as well as a poem I wrote which singer-songwriter Geoff Bradley turned into lyrics for a song he composed. Bradley’s beautiful performance of the song, which he named “Journey of a Lone Wolf,” is hope-filled and haunting, fully capturing the sense of possibility borne by OR-7 and by every single wolf who leaves their pack in search of their destiny.
OR-7 left an indelible mark in the history of wolf recovery. His life and life story contributed significantly to our understanding of wolf biology and ecology and the important role legal protection plays in successful wolf recovery.
Every wolf that’s been killed in the wolf wars taking place across the country was a potential OR-7: a wolf who, had they lived, might have dispersed from their birth-pack and into an adjacent state, to return to lands wolves once called home.
What is one wolf worth? We know. We learned from OR-7.