'Animal Sense': The Legend of OR7, Oregon's Lonely, Wandering Wolf

Since leaving his pack in Oregon, OR7 has traveled more than 2,000 miles.
Snapped by California state biologist Richard Shinn, this is the only photograph ever taken of OR-7. (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Shinn)
Oct 3, 2012· 2 MIN READ
wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

TakePart is happier than ever to present “Animal Sense,” a weekly column penned by bestselling author Maria Goodavage. She’ll be sniffing out all manner of cool, quirky, outrageous, and sometimes outraging animal stories. Check out the column each week on TakePart’s home page.

People come to California looking for love and happiness all the time. It’s so commonplace that it’s almost cliché.

But last December, when a gray wolf looking for a mate crossed into California, it was far from an everyday event. In 1924, a hunter killed the very last wild wolf in the state. So some 87 years later, when this wolf walked into California, it was Very Big News.

The wolf—known as OR7 because he was the seventh wolf radio-tagged by biologists in Oregon—had traveled some 2,000 miles since he left his pack behind in northeastern Oregon. It was a record journey for a wolf, and particularly tremendous for a lone wolf. Wolves are highly social, and live and hunt best with others of their kind. Even some who wish the wolf had never set paw in California begrudgingly confessed some admiration for the months and miles OR7 had spent on his own.

MORE: The Fate of the Famed Denali National Park Wolves May Depend on an Emergency Hunting Ban

Now he has stirred the hearts of many residents, who are thrilled to see this symbol of the wild back again. Conservationists say there’s plenty of habitat for him and other wolves to enjoy in Northern California, and stress that wolves are important in keeping nature in balance. Their presentations about OR7 tend to be packed affairs, and wolf T-shirts, pens, and books fly off the shelves afterward.

OR7’s fans ache for him when they learn that he may be howling at night, hoping to hear a howl in return, so he can know he’s not alone any more. Some are calling for the state to play matchmaker and bring him a potential mate. A breeder of wolf-dog hybrids tells me she would have set out her favorite female for him if she’d been in heat.

Meanwhile, the wolf has stirred the ire of ranchers and others worried about possible attacks on livestock—and erosion of their private property rights. They’ve heard horror stories from ranchers in other states, and fear that if other wolves come down from Oregon or Washington, their livestock and livelihoods could suffer greatly.

The ranchers are upset about wolves’ endangered species status. If OR7 (or a future wolf) decides to make a cow or sheep into lunch, ranchers can’t hurt him, even if they catch him red-mouthed in the act. Harming OR7 or any wolf in protected areas can come with jail time and a huge fine. When I was up in Northern California recently to learn more about the wolf situation, I heard from more than one rancher that there’s no way they’d be able to just sit there and watch a wolf maul one of their animals, despite the punishments. “I don’t look good in prison orange, but how could I not stop him?” one longtime rancher told me.

Today, the state Fish and Game commission is taking public comments in Sacramento about the possibility of listing the gray wolf as endangered under the state’s endangered species act. Wolf proponents say it’s an important layer of protection, in case at some point wolves are delisted federally everywhere. But it’s not sitting at all well with ranchers. “It feels like a giant slap in the face for everything we stand for,” a Siskiyou County rancher told me. It promises to be a very contentious meeting.

To learn about OR7's approximate location on a daily basis, check out this website. To find out more about gray wolves or see a map of OR7's travels, visit the California Department of Fish and Game.

If you attended, what would you tell the commission? Do you feel strongly one way or the other, or can you see the arguments on both sides?