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The Lone Wolf & the Wayward Wolverine

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It is the stuff of children’s books like the 'Incredible Journey,' where lost animals walk hundreds of miles back home. Except these animals are moving the wrong way, leaving home and wandering across entire states, entering lonesome territory where they are the ghosts of a bygone era.

Truckee’s wolverine, which became a wildlife celebrity after apparently walking to Truckee from Idaho in 2008, has confounded wildlife biologists since its first appearance. The wolverine continues to hang around the Truckee area, wandering from Kingvale to Mt. Lola, Webber Lake, and Sagehen Creek, according to Jeff Brown, station manager for the U.C. Berkeley Sagehen Field Station north of Truckee.

This winter, the wolverine was joined in Northern California by another solitary interloper, a gray wolf, the only one of its kind known to enter California since the era of the Model T. As the wolf dropped south from Medford, Ore., walked east of Mt. Shasta, and wandered into Lassen County, the same consternation that surrounded the wolverine, as well as a growing heap of controversy, has followed the lone animal named 'OR-7.'

What is known about OR-7 is that he left his Oregon pack in September 2011 and started heading south. He walked hundreds of miles, crossing seven counties, sneaking over an interstate and four highways, and swimming the Klamath River before entering California.

Unable to take down large prey without the help of a pack, he is likely snacking on rabbits and squirrels on his southbound journey, hoping to soon find a mate and a few hunting partners, said Patrick Valentino, a board member with the California Wolf Center, a wolf education group.

'He will probably play a little bit of the role of coyote and prey on smaller game,' Valentino said. 'I don’t think we will see it try to grab the neighbor’s cat. That is just not a part of its program. It is definitely looking for a mate and it is looking for larger prey. That is dialed into its brain.'

Wildlife officials say OR-7’s journey is a typical case of 'dispersal,' where a wolf heads out alone to find new territory and possibly a new mate, seeking to create a new wolf pack. But there is also evidence to suggest the Oregon pack that he left was in disarray. The pack was known to have as many as 16 wolves in 2010, but recently may have dwindled to as few as five members. One member of the pack was tracked wandering to southeastern Washington. Another swam across an entire reservoir to return to Idaho, and a third headed west through Oregon.

Since OR-7 arrived in California, the phones and email accounts at the California Department of Fish and Game have been inundated with wildly divergent messages.

'Right after the first announcement that the wolf had entered California, I received 50 emails,' said Jordan Traverso of the California Department of Fish and Game. 'I got one email that was so congratulatory that it was almost as if I had had my own baby.'

Other messages have been less enthusiastic, asking questions about whether the wolf will prey on domestic dogs or be a danger to humans.While the fish and game officials have been busy meeting with county officials and educating the public about the habits of wolves, they are as mystified as anyone about the future of California’s lone wolf.

Did OR-7 unwittingly wander into a lonesome landscape that he will soon leave? Are there previously undetected wolves in the remote reaches of Northern California that OR-7 will meet up with to form a pack? Is it the beginning of the return of a permanent California wolf population?

Valentino has tracked the rapid dispersal of wolves from their reintroduction near Yellowstone to Oregon and Washington. He believes that a permanent wolf population is coming to California soon.

'I would say five years… five to 10 years,' said Valentino, 'but something tells me we will see it happen a little faster.'

Engineers of Biodiversity    

While many view the wolf as a curiosity or a threat, one of the reasons people like Valentino are excited about the prospect of a permanent wolf population is that research shows that the reemergence of the predators can have widespread benefits that ripple across an entire ecosystem, impacting such seemingly unconnected species as grasses, willows, and aspens.

To understand a wolf’s impact, you must first understand the chain of events that followed the wolves’ extirpation. Entire ecosystems that were a delicate balance between predator and prey were thrown out of alignment. Deer, elk, and moose — animals that once moved often to avoid predation by wolves — became much more stationary. Coyotes, once squeezed to the margins by their more powerful brothers, filled in the gaps, their populations exploding unnaturally. Grass began to be overgrazed by fearless deer and elk. Coyotes began out-competing species that once flourished alongside the wolf — animals like badgers, foxes, and martens.

Since their reintroduction in Yellowstone, wolves have contributed to a documented reversal of this trend. Elk populations have come back into balance. Grasses, aspens, and willows have rebounded, providing essential habitat for nesting birds and shade and cover for fish. Meanwhile, the leftovers of wolf-killed elk or deer are essential food for companion species that for centuries lived off of those carcasses.

'When they make a kill, it is out in the open. Ravens follow wolves. Ravens, bears, coyotes feed off of the kills,' said Valentino. 'You cannot replace what wolves do at all.'

Of course, not everyone is as thrilled as Valentino about the wolf’s possible reemmergences in the California ecosystem. The same deep-seated fears and conflicts with ranchers that were the reason the wolf was hunted to extinction in California in 1924 still remain today.

Many raised on a diet of wolf horror stories view wolves as intensely dangerous to humans.

'Of the biggest misperceptions about wolves, the extreme on the negative side, is that wolves are killers for sport and they will kill people,' said Valentino. 'Wolves don’t hunt for sport; they hunt for very good reasons.'

Cases of wolves attacking humans are extremely rare, despite an estimated 70,000 wolves living on the continent. But wolves do kill and eat livestock, which has made for a very real conflict with ranchers. Cattle, and particularly sheep, are targets of the predators.

Even advocates of wolf re-introduction like Valentino realize that a permanent population of wolves in California will have to go hand-in-hand with a program that takes into account the impact on livestock.

The Wolf and the Wolverine    

As a radio collar intermittently transmits his location, the path of OR-7 is being tracked by wildlife officials. The route the wolf is taking is being made public on a Department of Fish and Game website, with a several day delay in the data to ensure that no one attempts to track the animal down.

'It is in the best interest of the wolf to not have its exact location disclosed,' said Traverso.

With a documented wolverine and a lone wolf in Northern California, it is hard to determine whether this is a monumental period in California wildlife history, or whether these far-ranging animals have routinely wandered through California undetected in the past.

'If one can get here, then more than one can get here,' said Traverso. 'There is a high likelihood that animals have come in and out of California that we have not known about. Animals don’t recognize state lines.'

At the Sagehen Field Station, Jeff Brown has been keeping tabs on what may be the world’s loneliest wolverine, which continues to wander the vast forests north of Truckee. Except for the occasional road, home, or recreation area, the habitat is perfect for wolverines, and wolves for that matter, he said.

'There is no reason why wolverines should not be here,' said Brown.

As for the wolf?

'We hope he comes down,' he said.

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Reader comments so far...

fran (not verified)
Hunter friends tell me that Canadian Wolves are decimating the big game in Idaho. Do you think that is a valid assessment?

jacqui (not verified)
"In response to the first comment; no that is not a valid assessment. Hunters totally over react to wolves thinking they are going to kill all the game. Wolves don't "decimate" big game populations, they keep eco-systems in balance. Without predators to balance out the grazers, populations can get too big for the eco-system to support and more animals starve in the winter. They are killing hundreds of wolves in Idaho out of fear and ignorance, not facts or science."

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March 14, 2019