USA–– The famous lone wolf of California has been roaming curiously close to a large wildfire in Plumas County this week in what experts think might be a fiendishly clever ploy to pick off prey fleeing the flames.
The first wolf to enter the state in almost 90 years was tracked using his GPS collar to within a mile of the 63,160-acre Chips Fire, which was still burning out of control near Lake Almanor on Friday.
“Over the last week he was pretty darn close to the perimeter of this fire, strangely so,” said Karen Kovacs, the wildlife program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game. “There was speculation that he might be going after animals that are moving away from the fire.”
Nobody really knows for sure what the wolf, known as OR7, is up to, she said, but there aren’t many other reasons the canine predator would be lurking so close to towering flames. The fire has blackened some 98 square miles around the Plumas National Forest, threatening 900 homes and forcing evacuations in Canyon Dam, Big Meadows and, earlier, Seneca. Evacuation advisories were issued in Rush Creek and Prattville.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this week in Plumas County, where high winds over the weekend are expected to make life harder for firefighters, who had managed by Friday to cut fire breaks around only a little more than half of the fire perimeter. The wolf, however, did not seem fazed by the crackling inferno.
“I think intuitively all wildlife moves away from a fire, but he was like a mile from the perimeter over a couple of days, so that was interesting,” Kovacs said. Typically wolves “are looking to take advantage of any situation.”
The 3-year-old male wolf left what is known as the Imnaha Pack in Wallowa County, Ore., last year and has now traveled an estimated 2,500 miles through dense forests, over mountains, past lakes and over grass, range and marshlands in search of food and a mate.
OR7, so named because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in Oregon, crossed the California state line in December, causing an international sensation, and has now zigzagged through Siskiyou, Lassen, Shasta, Modoc, Butte and Plumas counties.
It is, by all accounts, a remarkably long journey that has provided researchers with valuable data on wolf behavior as they have plotted his location every six hours through the radio transmissions.
The solo lobo has traveled an average of about 15 miles a day mostly in remote high country terrain between 5,000 and 6,800 feet in elevation. He has passed through some of California’s most scenic wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and parks, including Mount Lassen, and has gone around Lake Almanor twice.
Still, he has diligently avoided people and their livestock, Kovacs said. Although dozens of people have reported seeing him – including one discounted report in Point Arena – there has only been one confirmed sighting, and that was in Modoc County by Fish and Game biologists who knew he was in the vicinity at the time.
“He’s been on public land for many weeks now,” said Kovacs, adding that the wolf sometimes tracks back many miles through forest to revisit locations he left two months previously. “He still continues to be on the move and based on the frequency of his movements he seems to be moving around quite well.”
Wildlife officials have attempted to stay out of OR7’s way, but they occasionally go into areas where they know he has been to collect fur and bones and see where he sleeps. Wolves prey mainly on elk and deer, which could be a problem since there are very few elk in California and the deer population is near its lowest in more than a decade.
Appetite for venison
“We know he has eaten deer,” Kovacs said. “We also found some fur in an area where he was digging so we think he might have had some ground squirrel.”
The wolf fed on the already dead bodies of two cows early in the year. In northeastern Siskiyou County wildlife biologists found the carcass of a wild horse.
“It would be pretty hard for him to take a wild horse down by himself,” she said. “We believe it was already dead and he fed on it.”
Wolves can go a week to 10 days without eating and then consume 20 pounds of meat in one sitting. Nobody has yet confirmed any kills near the Chips Fire. The laying-in-wait theory may ultimately be impossible to prove if the flames continue to spread. Still, the bonanza of scientific information is pouring in.
Fish and Game officials will soon be performing DNA tests on California’s only two preserved skins of native wolves, including one trapped and killed in 1924 near Litchfield, Lassen County, believed to be the last one in the state. The other specimen was killed in the Providence Mountains, in San Bernardino County, in 1922, and is believed to have been a Mexican wolf.
The testing would determine whether OR7 is the same species of wolf that historically existed in California, as biologists believe. That information could be important in deciding whether to approve a petition filed by conservation groups to list the gray wolf as an endangered species in the state. Fish and Game commissioners will take public testimony on Oct. 3 in Sacramento on the petition.
Wolves were exterminated in the lower 48 states, except Minnesota, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the mid-1990s, 66 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in an attempt to bring the apex predator back. Biologists believe the extirpated wolves and the Canadian wolves were virtually identical.
The reintroduction campaign worked better than anyone expected. More than 1,700 gray wolves have spread throughout the northern Rocky Mountains into northeastern Oregon, and it is believed a pack will soon be established in California.
OR7 is clearly looking for a mate, which he is unlikely to find unless he chooses a female coyote or dog, which, experts say, isn’t unheard of when there is no other choice.
Nobody has yet documented any howling, but there is little doubt California’s pioneer wolf is lonely and often hungry. His behavior near the fire in Plumas County indicates he is also thinking all the time.