By MARK FREEMAN
After 2?1/2 years and more than 3,000 miles of looking for love in all the wrong places, wandering wolf OR-7 may finally be off the market.
New photographs, satellite data and other evidence suggest OR-7 has found a mate and may already have a family in the wilds of eastern Jackson County.
"I'm very surprised," said John Stephenson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Bend. "I didn't think it was going to happen. "We were afraid he might hook up with a dog, which is rare but has happened in the past.
"It proves these guys are resilient and that they really get around," Stephenson said.
Remote cameras placed in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest captured images in recent weeks of what appears to be a black female wolf in the same area where OR-7 is located, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They include images of the black wolf and OR-7 shot by the same camera along the same roadway in eastern Jackson County about an hour apart, said Stephenson, who found the images when he checked the cameras May 7.
The images don't prove OR-7 has a mate, but it appears he has paired up and might have denned and already fathered pups, Vargas said.
The black wolf was confirmed to be female because she squatted to urinate. The GPS locations also showed OR-7 was staying within a smaller area, common behavior when wolves have pups to feed.
If so, this would be a poor time to disturb the den, Stephenson said. The adults could panic and attempt to move the pups, who are too small and weak for that amount of stress.
"Right now, we'll give them their space and learn more as the summer progresses," Stephenson said.
After 2?1/2 years largely on the move, the transmissions from the almost-dead Global Positioning System transmitter on OR-7's collar had shown the nearly 5-year-old wolf was frequenting one remote area. So Stephenson and ODFW wildlife biologist Mark Vargas set up the trail cameras in that area about three weeks ago.
Biologists also have found large amounts of scat and what appeared to be tracks from two different wolves, Vargas said.
"He had different behaviors so we thought something was going on," Vargas said. "Now we have the evidence."
No one knows how the two wolves found each other, but Stephenson suspects the female was also wandering in search of a mate and they may have smelled each other.
Regardless, it appears to be a significant event in OR-7's very public search for a mate that has drawn attention from around the globe.
OR-7's story began in February 2011 when he and his sister were tranquilized in Wallowa County, fitted with collars and released.
The sister, OR-8, had a VHS-emitting collar similar to the ones used for decades on deer and elk. She died a week after being collared, with no exact cause of death determined.
Later that year, OR-7 left the Imnaha pack in the northeast corner of the state and set out to find new territory and a mate. That's when his story caught the public's eye.
Most Oregon wolves on such journeys, called dispersals, have stayed in northeast Oregon or traveled to Idaho. OR-7 went south and west, with the tracking satellite following his historic moves.
When he crossed the Cascade crest and into Douglas County in September 2011, he became the first confirmed wolf in Western Oregon since the last one was killed under a livestock-protection bounty program in 1937.
While in Jackson County, a trail camera set out in November by Central Point hunter Allen Daniels captured the first known image of his time on the move.
When he headed south into California around Christmas time, OR-7 became the Golden State's only confirmed wolf since 1924.
He wandered throughout Northern California and almost traveled into Nevada before doing an about-face and retracing his steps to Oregon after spending a year south of the border.
All the while, OR-7 managed to steer clear of livestock, yet he couldn't find a mate. He current home range is eastern Jackson and western Klamath counties.
Officials had planned to let OR-7's collar die, but now that he appears to have found a mate, he will be fitted with a new one this summer to monitor the pack.
Stephenson said officials had no idea where the female came from.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-7764470, or e-mail at email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.