A young gray wolf has become a local media darling after meandering hundreds of miles into historic new territory in southwest Oregon, but his presence now within a two-day jaunt of the California border has even more significance in the Golden State.
If the juvenile's wanderlust continues southward, experts say he could start the repopulation of a vanished species in California, where threatened and endangered species historically have relied on the help of man.
"I can't think of another species that was completely extirpated in California that has returned," said Michael Stopher, who has been monitoring the wolf for the California Department of Fish and Game. "As a scientist, seeing the possible restoration of our historic mega fauna thrills me."
Gray wolves are much bigger than coyotes and are the ancestors of domestic dogs. They stand three-feet at the shoulder with massive heads, a bite powerful enough to snap a bone, and paws up to six-inches wide.
The last gray wolf in California was killed in 1924 about 50 miles from the Oregon border by a trapper intent on making the West safe for cattle. Livestock ranchers are watching warily this lone wolf's progress too.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure elsewhere before it gets here," said Billy Flournoy, 70, whose family has been ranching in Modoc County on the state's northern border since 1871. "We'll have more problems with coyotes and mountain lions. Wolves like bigger prey."
The story of the wolf known as OR-7 — the seventh affixed with a GPS collar in Oregon — is linked to a decision in 1995 to reintroduce a pack of gray wolves from Canada into Idaho and areas around Yellowstone National Park.
The wolves were protected from hunters by the Endangered Species Act and multiplied beyond anyone's dreams. In 1999 wolves migrated into Oregon, which state officials say now has 24 in the northeastern corner that abuts Idaho and Washington State.
Typically only the alpha male and alpha females breed, though the others share pup-rearing duties. In September, OR-7 set out on his big adventure, and a satellite has recorded every move.
"He went out looking for girls, that's how I like to put it," Stopher said.
In three months, he has zigzagged for 730 miles across the Blue Mountains and high desert plains, killing at least one elk along the way. He ended up outside of Medford on Mt. McLaughlin in the Cascades, 300 crow-fly miles away from home.
"If he climbed high enough, he would have been able to see Mt. Shasta" in California, said Stopher.
That's as close as he has come so far, though Stopher, the department's environmental program manager, has been preparing for years for the possible migration of wolves into California. Along with duties such as monitoring suction dredge mining and working on the Klamath River restoration, he has been drafting a document to prepare wildlife officers for the inevitable, whenever that day may occur.
But early information on wolves in California is scant, and few museum specimens exist.
"There are some historic accounts from some people who would know the difference between a wolf and a coyote, but the information is like a puzzle with fewer pieces in it than we would like to have," Stopher said. "We can say they were widespread, but the available information doesn't suggest they were abundant."
Rancher Flournoy runs 2,000 cattle on 500,000 acres held by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management with his 93-year-old father, who doesn't recall ever hearing of a wolf in the area, though there are at least 200 elk in Modoc that might draw one today.
Oregon tags and tracks wolves using both GPS and the less accurate VHF transmitting systems. Wildlife officials have set up a text messaging system to alert ranchers when wolves, which have killed at least 19 domestic grazing animals since 2010, are within striking distance of livestock.
California is probably years away from needing a tracking program as complex as Oregon's, Stopher said. If the stealthy OR-7, who has avoided being spotted on his journeys, comes to California, he probably won't stay if he's really on the hunt for females. California habitat, crisscrossed by roads and populated with 40 million people, is less than ideal for an animal that likes deep wilderness.
"My view is that we have a high probability for a wolf in the near future," Stopher said. "Whether they stay, I have no idea. And it will take a few years before we have a wolf pack here."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.