On Feb. 5, 2014, the world’s most famous wolf woke up somewhere along the Oregon-California border, very likely in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, a landscape of Alpine forests and grassland valleys. For the better part of a year he had been making his home in this place where the Cascade, Klamath, and Siskiyou mountains converge.
It was cold that day, in the upper 20s or lower 30s depending on his altitude. Still, it was plenty warm for a gray wolf, which can sleep comfortably at 40 below. Known as OR7—the seventh wolf to be fitted by Oregon wildlife officials with a location-transmitting collar—the wolf likely rose, shook off whatever snow may have fallen on his coat overnight, and sniffed around for anything new and exciting. In the still morning air, he could pick up a scent from nearly two miles away.
After getting a cool drink from a mountain stream, OR7 probably left his mark on a tree stump, just as he’d done thousands of times since setting out on the long, quixotic trek that took him from his birthplace in northeast Oregon and carried him over mountain ranges, across rivers and highways, and around the dangerous edges of civilization. Dispersing wolves tend to set up shop about 60 miles from their birth pack’s territory; OR7 was more than 500 miles from home. He’d been even further, deep into California, where he became the first wolf in nearly a century to take up residence in the state, staying for more than a year before settling down here in Oregon’s southern mountain ranges.
Since leaving home in September 2011, OR7 didn’t have much to show for his travels. Sure, he’d become an important symbol: His trek through lands that could form new wolf territories—lands conservationists would like to see protected and traditional Western lobbies would like to see exploited for hunting, ranching, and resource extraction—has added fire to the battle over the future of wolves in the West. It’s a battle framed at the extremes: Some wish to end livestock grazing on public lands altogether, others see the return of wolves as an ominous threat to be addressed by any means necessary.
And he had defied long odds. A lone wolf as far from a pack as OR7 was last winter has a life expectancy of about five years, and he would be five in a few months. His brother and sister had already been killed by humans. By surviving, OR7 revealed much about the meaning of state and federal endangered species acts, about the effectiveness of conservationist tactics in an era of severe stress on the environment, and, like the constant hum of a buzz saw in the distance, about who maintains the upper hand in the culture clash between the old West of ranching, logging, resource extraction, and hunting and the new West of coffee shops, art galleries, ecotourism, and conservation.
But the Byzantine calculations of humans don’t mean anything to wolves. The morning of Feb. 5, something made him restless. Probably he had the same thing on his mind that had driven him to leave home in the first place—mating. Or maybe he was following prey to lower elevations. Maybe he picked up a primal, familiar scent, one he hadn’t smelled since leaving home so long ago. Whatever it was, OR7 went south.
That same day, at 8:30 a.m., the first-floor auditorium of the Resources Buildings on Sacramento’s Ninth Street, some 300 miles away, was as packed with humans as the land around OR7 was free of them. There, the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets policy for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, would receive the department’s final recommendation on whether to protect wolves under California’s Endangered Species Act.
California had hosted just one gray wolf over the past 80 or so years—OR7—and he was now known to be residing in Oregon. But when OR7 first crossed into California, more than a year earlier, wildlife advocates at the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups seized the opportunity and petitioned the state to protect all gray wolves in California. With federal wolf protections being removed, states forming the new frontier for dispersing wolves will have a huge role in the future of the species, determining just how much of its historic habitat the gray wolf will be allowed to reclaim. Would OR7 and animals like him get a welcome mat, a bullet, or something in between? When he entered California, OR7 brought these questions to the most powerful and, on environmental issues, most influential state in the nation. Even if their federal protections were removed, wolves could still be safe in the Golden State—depending on what its Fish and Game commissioners decided.
As has become his way, OR7 defied expectations and stayed in California for most of 2012. So, with one wolf at least in its backyard, the Fish and Game Commission decided in October 2012 that the petition deserved due consideration.
To biologists and wildlife officials, OR7’s venture into California looked like a hopeless search for a mate in a wolf-free state. But the wildlife-loving public became captivated, turning to CDFW’s sporadic postings to find out where he had been last. Oregon Wild, one of the state’s most high-profile conservation groups, held a naming contest, and OR7 was dubbed Journey by his fans. His wanderings played like a parable about looking for love in all the wrong places. He wasn’t just a lone wolf; he was a lonely wolf.
While CDFW was reviewing the best available science on gray wolves, statewide habitat models, and prey densities, along with the historical record on wolves in California, relevant statutes, stakeholder interests, and more, Journey returned to Oregon. So on Feb. 5, 2014, CDFW recommended against providing state endangered species protections to Canis lupus, mostly, it said, because there were no gray wolves in California to protect.
Or so it thought. Whatever motivated Journey, data from his collar showed he crossed over into California that very day.
The commission wouldn’t decide whether to follow that recommendation for months to come. But to wolf advocates, Journey’s timing was an encouraging message after years of state-sanctioned wolf hunts and nearly relentless rollbacks of wolf protections nationwide.
“In the midst of all this really, really ugly news about wolves,” says Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, “it’s kind of like he said, ‘I’m here for you. You guys need me now.’ ”
When Journey was about two weeks old, he first opened his eyes in a place far from California, one that must have looked like paradise to a wolf pup.
Wallowa County, in the very northeast of Oregon and named for the Wallowa Mountains, is a rugged place, with thousands of elk and deer roaming the vast Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and the Zumwalt Prairie, one of the continent’s largest intact grasslands. Just as enticing to a wolf is that Wallowa County has fewer than 7,000 people spread across its 3,152 square miles. (Rhode Island has 1,214 square miles and 1 million people.)
Journey was born in spring 2009 to B300, collared outside Boise, Idaho, in 2006. She would later be nicknamed Sophie.
Signals from Sophie’s collar have her first crossing the Snake River into Oregon in winter 2007. By the following summer, trail cameras were picking up images of her hanging around the Imnaha River, on the eastern edge of the Zumwalt Prairie. By winter, biologists had confirmed tracks of two adult wolves traveling together. The other one was Journey’s father, OR4. At 110–115 pounds, he is the largest wolf yet to be collared in Oregon. He is also prolific: Journey was born into the initial litter of the Imnaha pack, Oregon’s first wolf pack in more than six decades. By 2010, the pack had as many as 16 members, accounting for more than half the state’s wolves at the time. Though the pack’s numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years from human-caused mortality and dispersal, many of Sophie and OR4’s offspring went on to start other Oregon packs—no small feat, after so long an absence from the region—and there have been wolves in Oregon ever since. (Sophie is most likely no longer one of them; her collar stopped signaling in summer 2013, and she is presumed dead.)
As much as Wallowa County has to offer recolonizing wolves, it can be a forbidding place for humans. Four industrial sawmills have been shuttered for decades; median household income lags $10,000 behind the state’s and even further behind the nation’s. Given the stakes, it should come as no surprise that many locals saw Sophie and OR4’s pack as a threat to what today accounts for roughly a third of the local economy: ranching. There are nearly 30,000 beef cattle and almost 20,000 dairy cows in the county, and despite wolves enjoying the support of 70 percent of all Oregon residents and being protected under Oregon’s endangered species act, those known to have ventured across the Snake River beginning in the late ’90s were shipped back, shot, or run over by cars.
Few would argue that ranching is an easy living, but by providing direct subsidies—and indirect ones such as public lands grazing and the eradication of competing interests like Indians, elks, bison, and grizzly bears—the politics and mores of the West have made it less painful.
The nation’s livestock subsidies have exceeded $4 billion since 1995, the year wolves were reintroduced to the West. More than a third of that has gone to various compensation programs. Wallowa County has taken almost $2 million in livestock subsidies over that period. The county’s ranchers graze about half their cattle on public lands during some part of the year.
Some, such as Jon Marvel, the founder of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group that has been vocal about what it sees as negative environmental effects of livestock grazing, feels it’s too much. “I think we’re at a tipping point on ranching,” he says. “It’s sustained by hobbyists, corporations, and politicians mired in the past. Absent government subsidies, cattle and sheep ranching in the arid West would have ended a long time ago.”
That kind of talk isn’t popular in places such as Wallowa County where cattle is king. In 2009, when the Imnaha pack established a toehold in the area, locals held anti-wolf rallies and carried banners urging folks to “Shoot, Shovel, Shut Up” and “Smoke a Pack a Day.”
Such sentiments grew out of ranchers’ and hunters’ frustration that when it came to wolves, they were being talked at, not talked to. Local rancher Todd Nash shared that frustration. The stocky 51-year-old has been in Wallowa County since he was five, and he takes pride in his work raising beef. He heads up the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Wolf Task Force, and he’s no fan of sharing the landscape with wolves, especially not Journey’s natal pack. “Every time the Imnaha pack shows up,” says Nash, “bad things happen.”
Wolves did little to ingratiate themselves with ranchers when they began reestablishing in the area. The Imnaha pack tallied one cattle kill per month during its first two years in Wallowa County, including six in one month in 2010—a perfect I-told-you-so moment for those who warned that wolves would maraud local livestock.
To Nash, it’s not just the kills, for which, through a cumbersome process, ranchers are mostly reimbursed. It’s the burden wolves add to an already difficult job. “Wolves will chase and harass and scare these cattle to the point where some are so stressed, they abort. They are run and run and run, and some actually die from running,” he says. “Some of the cattle have been eaten while they are still alive, and some we’ve seen where they’ve eaten the calf out of the pregnant cow and the cow is still alive. It’s just about as heinous an act as one could imagine.”
Before a wolf can be killed for livestock depredation in Oregon, an investigation must determine the precise wolf or wolves responsible for the deaths, and the depredating wolves must be shown to be habitual offenders after deterrents have had no effect.
Nash wants ranchers to have a freer hand. “I would like to go back to where we didn’t have wolves here at all,” he says wryly. “Having said that, and knowing the political environment we’re in, I’d just like these wolves to be taken out as soon as they start preying on cattle…. We were told that if they got to the point where they were chronically depredating on cattle, [state officials] would take the pack out. That hasn’t happened.”
Rob Klavins, northeast field coordinator for Oregon Wild, thinks Nash’s fear is misplaced. He likes to point out that 55,000 of the state’s more than 1.3 million cattle die annually from almost everything except wolves, and that the elements kill far more cattle than wolves do. Cattle rustlers have stolen 1,200 head a year over the past several years.
Wolves have virtually no effect on livestock or rancher income, statistically speaking. According to USDA figures from 2010, the most recent available, predators accounted for 4.3 percent of all livestock losses. Coyotes were the main offenders by far, followed by dogs, mountain lions, birds of prey, “other predators”—and then wolves. In an industry valued at nearly $50 billion to $90 billion nationally, non-predator deaths—illness, weather, theft, calving problems—totaled $2.3 billion in losses. Wolves caused $3.6 million in damages, or about 0.16 percent of the total, most of which was reimbursed. Dogs did three times as much damage, none of it reimbursable.
“Those numbers don’t matter if it’s your cow and you’ve lost her,” the conservationist Klavins acknowledges. But a greater cause of the ire many have for wolves, he believes, is that “wolves have become a symbol for the federal government putting these predators here, and a bunch of Portland liberal elites telling us what we can and can’t kill. It’s sort of a proxy battle for the cultural wars that we’re seeing everywhere else. If we were really focusing on the reality of it, it wouldn’t be so hysterical.”
Journey left Wallowa County in September 2011.
Wildlife officials had recently killed two members of his former pack, and two from neighboring packs, for killing livestock. (A recent study indicated that killing depredating wolves can backfire because doing so disrupts the pack’s social structures, but the practice persists.) A suit by Oregon Wild and other conservationists filed in 2010 was all that stood between a bullet and Journey’s father, OR4. So while the scenery may have been great, things at home weren’t exactly going swimmingly.
That’s not to say getting out of Dodge is always the best bet. A poacher killed OR6, a male member of the Wenaha pack, in September 2010, about 100 miles from his birthplace. A hunter illegally killed Journey’s brother, OR9, in Idaho in February 2012. A trapper in Idaho killed his sister, OR5, in March 2013, on the last day of the state’s recreational wolf trapping season.
OR7's path was like a tour of the big, wild places that have been protected and that we are working hard to protect.
Rob Klavins, Oregon Wild
Even in the face of the mostly man-made dangers confronting wolves that leave their packs, maturing wolves will try to establish new territories and new packs. Doing so is critical to their genetic integrity. What distinguished Journey is that he went south. And just kept going. In his search for a home to call his own, Journey put more than 3,000 miles on his pads.
At first, he likely followed the West Fork Wallowa River its entire 12 miles as it drains a valley. Mount Sacajawea, at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, would dominate westerly vistas, with Red Mountain, at 9,500 feet, ruling the southeast.
On his way out of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Journey may have made a mountain pass to the west around Lake Frazier. From there he could have picked up East Fork Eagle Creek and continued south. Toward the southern end of the forest a service road starts to run parallel to the creek, and it may have looked like easy street to a wandering wolf. A fledgling pack was starting to form a territory along the western edge of his route. Maybe he thought he’d try taking over as top dog. Maybe he was leaving love letters for the future, or at least a scent trail for fellow adventurers to one day follow.
Whatever it was, Journey would cross state highway 86, flirt dangerously with Idaho before looping back, and continue across Interstate 84 and then Highway 26, making it to the Malheur National Forest in the Cascades, halfway between Boise and Bend, and continuing west to Ochoco National Forest.
Biologists and conservationists observing the progress of wolves in the West since their reintroduction in 1995 held the view that once wolves made it to the Oregon Cascades, it would be only a matter of time before they spread into California. Journey put these theories to the test. He cut south of Bend and continued along the spine of the Oregon Cascades through national forests, a national park, and a national wildlife refuge, a one-wolf ecotourist. That he appeared hopelessly lost mattered less than that he navigated a patchwork quilt of relatively intact lands coveted as natural migratin corridors for recovering predators, from wolverines to lynx and now to wolves.
“His path was like a tour of the big, wild places that have been protected and that we are working hard to protect,” says Klavins. “It’s a validation of the work.”
At this point, Journey had traveled more than 500 miles from Wallowa County as the crow flies, many more in his daily meanderings. His calling cards went unanswered—no other wolves were in howling distance. The closest were back where he came from, or to the east, in Idaho, where the state’s second sanctioned hunting and trapping season was by then under way.
Winter was coming, his first on his own, and one wonders if Journey felt anything like loneliness or fear. Did he know he’d gone too far to turn back? Or was the confidence of being a large gray wolf in his element all he needed?
An estimated 500,000 gray wolves once roamed the U.S. just about everywhere outside the Southeast. As settlement moved west and impediments to Manifest Destiny were brutally removed, shooting, poisoning, trapping, and burning wolves in their dens became part of federal programs aimed at removing competition for livestock range—programs that also depleted huge populations of bison, grizzly, elk, and antelope. By the 1920s, gray wolves had been wiped out everywhere except for a few isolated pockets in northern Minnesota and northern Montana.
In 1973, restoring wolves to the Western landscape became one of the flagship projects of the newly minted Endangered Species Act. A year later, all wolves in the U.S. were listed as endangered.
A reintroduction plan put forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, made especially painstaking by accommodations to ranching, hunting, and other interests, wasn't approved until 1987. Wolves would be listed as a “nonessential/experimental” species. That meant no limits on land use would be afforded them, unlike in the case of many other endangered species, and that their management would be returned as soon as possible to the states where they had been reintroduced. States could then allow the hunting of wolves as if they were any plentiful game species so long as they maintained a federally established minimum number of the animals. In other words, FWS wasn’t going to take on the powerful interests in the West.
In 1995, thirty gray wolves captured in Alberta, Canada, were released into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho. Two decades later more than 1,000 descendants of those immigrants were scattered throughout Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon.
In May 2011, a few months before Journey lit out from Wallowa County, Montana’s Democratic Sen. John Tester and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson slipped a rider into a government funding bill that removed federal protections for wolves in those areas. Majority Leader Harry Reid could have put the question to a vote, but Tester was facing a tough election fight the following year and needed some get-tough-on-wolves bona fides to bolster rural support. Several previous attempts to delist wolves had been turned back by legal action from environmental groups, but the legislative tactic made the move immune from lawsuits.
Wolf management returned to Idaho and Montana almost as soon as Tester’s rider went into effect, and to Wyoming the following year, resulting in the killing of more than 3,400 gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes. While wildlife advocates see these hunts as base exercises in trophy hunting, those opposed to wolves continue to push the characterization of the big bad wolf as something akin to Teddy Roosevelt’s “beasts of waste and desolation” and are intent on bringing their numbers down even further.
Even with all the killing, the overall effects of wolf hunts have been small in the core reintroduction states—Idaho’s wolf population dropped from 722 in 2012 to 659 in 2013, and is down 200 from its 2009 peak. Wyoming and Montana have gained wolves despite the hunting.
FWS’ western wolf coordinator, Mike Jimenez, says that management of wolves under the ESA has been a success and that gray wolves “are firmly established…in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes.” Today about 1,700 live in the Northern Rockies and parts of Washington and Oregon. About 3,600 more roam the Great Lakes region in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The issue now, Jimenez says, is how many wolves above the mandated numbers states are willing to tolerate. The gap between current wolf populations and the federally set minimums of at least 100 plus 10 breeding pairs in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho leaves a lot of lives in the balance. Those lives are incredibly rich, with complex social structures, and together create a surfeit of well-documented and much valued benefits to the landscape. Studies have shown that significant improvements in water and vegetation quality have accompanied the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Conversely, Isle Royale National Park, a cluster of islands in Lake Superior, faces substantial changes to its ecosystem because the wolf population is collapsing as a result of climate change (ice bridges to the mainland, where wolves would find mates, are no longer as prevalent). Moose are running rampant, with devastating effects on vegetation.
In September, a federal court returned control of wolves in Wyoming to FWS. The court held that it was “arbitrary and capricious” to simply rely on the state’s promises that it would maintain the federally set minimum population absent any enforcement mechanism. Next year in Oregon, though, the wolf population is expected to maintain a three-year threshold, making them eligible to come off the state's endangered species list. If that happens, conservationists fear Oregon will join other states and allow hunting and trapping.
It all may soon be moot. FWS has been floating the idea of removing all federal wolf protections across the U.S. save for those covering a struggling Mexican gray wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico.
Advocates wonder why we’re abandoning federal protections and killing wolves when they occupy only a third of prime habitat at half their potential numbers. While delisting would conform to the 1987 federal recovery plan and a new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act FWS announced in July, which basically shifts the mission of the act from comprehensive species recovery to something more like token recovery, it still comes up well short as far as folks such as Amaroq Weiss and the Center for Biological Diversity are concerned. They view the hard-fought recovery of a species that was once extirpated with extreme prejudice as tenuous at best, recently publishing a report that argues that only 30 percent of suitable wolf habitat has been recolonized by wolves and that the current population in the Lower 48 is far below what is required to ensure a viable long-term population and even farther below what some biologists say could be supported by expansion into available habitat nationwide.
Regardless, many observers expect delisting to happen sooner rather than later.
Mike Jimenez remains sanguine. “The population,” he says, “has grown larger than hunting mortality can manage.”
As winter closed in on southern Oregon, Journey flirted with a border crossing for weeks, unnerving some humans to the south. Speaking for some in far Northern California, Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong said she’d like to see any encroaching wolves shot on sight. Journey wasn’t hearing that and crossed into Armstrong’s territory on Dec. 28, 2011, the first wild wolf to put down tracks in California since 1924, when the last one was killed for a bounty in neighboring Lassen County.
Journey spent most of 2012 putting lines resembling a child’s first encounters with crayons on a map of Northern California. Throughout, he remained a blip on a radio screen, a cause célèbre, and a harbinger of doom. The extended residency added real-world legitimacy to theories that Carlos Carroll's, a biologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation and Research, had been championing since 2000. Carroll's modeling of suitable habitats for the potential return of predators to their historic ranges has been cited consistently in federal studies. He maintains that the California-Oregon border region from the northern Sierra to the southern Cascades, which for a long time Journey called home, could support up to 300 wolves. It’s potentially the largest wolf habitat in the Pacific states. Carroll followed Journey as the wolf wandered through his habitat models. “It’s great to see,” he says.
Journey crossed back into Oregon in March 2013, still lacking a mate. People wondered if he’d given up and was trying to find his way home, resigned to a sub-alpha role in whatever pack would have him. Others predicted he would die alone on some snowy slope after sustaining a mortal injury in a fight with a bull elk, or a mountain lion, or a car.
But Journey stopped right around Crater Lake, and while California was debating whether or not to protect him in his absence, he lingered. Shortly after the Feb. 5 meeting in Sacramento, OR7’s territorial amblings became so localized that biologists wondered if he could be denning.
With whom, though? As far as anyone knew, he was still the only wolf for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Then, on May 3, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and CDFW released trail cam stills of a wolf with black fur in the same area as Journey. There would be little chance they didn’t know of each other. Genetic tests on scat would later determine the wolf had ties to a pack that resided right along Journey’s trail out of northeast Oregon. The following day came pictures of the wolf squatting to pee: a female.
On June 4, more than 200 people packed the River Lodge Conference Center in Fortuna, California, in Humboldt County, for a meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission. Item 1(B) on the agenda was “Possible Decision on Whether or Not to List the Gray Wolf as a Threatened or Endangered Species”—the culmination of the department recommendation against protecting wolves that came in February, on the day OR7 made his day-trip into California.
Weiss recalled that during the public comment session, people sang wolf songs. A family came dressed in wolf garb. A toddler took the microphone and asked the commissioners to “pwotec da wooves.”
In an echo of the Feb. 5 coincidence, just as the public comment period was coming to an end, and Amaroq Weiss worried whether she had made her case for protecting would-be California wolves convincingly enough, FWS biologists monitoring Journey’s vicinity released some pictures on the Web. The photos started popping up on cell phones in the audience. “The room just erupted in cheers,” Weiss recalls, “and the commissioners smiled.”
This is one of the pictures the commissioners saw:
Moments later, against their department’s recommendation, the commissioners unanimously voted to list gray wolves as an endangered species in California.
Carlos Carroll was on the panel of experts that reviewed CDFW’s recommendation. He says the department claimed “they weren’t sure if there was enough habitat for wolves in California. I said the science was clear that there was.” Journey had helped prove him right.
Weiss had been predicting the return of wolves to California for more than a decade and advocating for their protection just as long. “For anyone saying we don’t know where wolves could go or live in California, he was the ground truth for us,” she says. “He made it real. The fact that he stayed here for so long, the fact that he kept coming back showing this is part of his range, the fact that he has mated right over the border, a border that doesn’t exist for him, means when those pups are old enough to leave and go out on their own, they are very likely to come to California.”
If they do, they will be protected, regardless of what the federal government decides. And the lone wolf of California will be alone no more.
UPDATE [Dec. 22, 2014]: On December19, a federal district court judge responding to a suit filed by the Humane Society and environmental groups, ruled that the 2011 decision to remove wolves in the Great Lakes region from the endangered species list, which led to the sport killing of thousands of wolves, is in violation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The court ordered a halt to trophy hunting and trapping in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and that gray wolves in the Great Lakes be returned to the Endangered Species list.
CORRECTION [Dec. 19, 2014]: A previously published version of this article stated that the Senate delisting measure was introduced by Ken Salazar as a rider on a Defense Dept. appropriations bill.