A young male wolf from Oregon that has won worldwide fame while trekking across mountains, deserts and highways looking for a mate has had what appears to be his first close encounter with people, and got his picture taken, to boot.
A federal trapper, a state game warden and a state wildlife biologist were visiting ranchers in Northern California on Tuesday to notify them that GPS signals showed the gray wolf was in the area, when they stopped to look over a sagebrush hillside with binoculars, said Karen Kovacs, wildlife program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game in Redding, Calif.
"There, all of a sudden, out pops a head, and there he is," she said. "He appeared very healthy."
The wolf was hanging out with three coyotes, and appeared curious about the people watching him. But he kept his distance, about 100 yards, Kovacs said.
"He has managed to stay off the radar as far as people getting visuals of this critter," she said. "His healthy distance has probably served him well up to this point."
California wildlife biologist Richard Shinn snapped a photo, the first shot of the animal in color, and the department posted it on its website.
The sighting happened on private land in Modoc County, the sparsely settled northeastern corner of California.
The wolf, known as OR-7, left the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon in September, shortly before the state put a death warrant on his father and a sibling for killing cattle. That order has been suspended while a challenge by conservation groups is heard in court. OR-7 is a descendant of wolves introduced into the Northern Rockies in the 1990s, and represents the westernmost expansion of a regional population that now tops 1,650.
His travels took him down the Cascade Range and across the border into California in December, making him the first wolf in California in more than 80 years, according to the department. Along the way he was photographed in black and white by an automated trailside camera in Oregon. He has since gone back to Oregon and returned to California, making his first visit to Modoc County.
While his story has appeared in newspapers and websites around the world, OR-7 has yet to find a mate or even settle down since following his natural inclination to leave his home and head out on his own.
"We joked that it only seems right that the world's most famous wolf makes an appearance in California and the paparazzi come out," said Rob Klavins of the conservation group Oregon Wild, which held a contest for children around the world to name the wolf and came up with Journey.
Klavins said he views wolf recovery as a "real-life story of redemption."
"This tells us how far we have come," he said. "His brother's story tells us how far we have to go. He was illegally shot in Idaho."
Kovacs said state biologists have been keeping close tabs on OR-7, with the help of his GPS collar, which is visible in one of the photos taken by Shinn.
Biologists have visited areas the wolf frequented after he left and found a track in the dirt in Northern California's Shasta County. They know he has fed on the carcasses of deer, dug up the burrows of ground squirrels, and fed from livestock carcasses left out by a rancher. But as of yet, there are no reports he has killed any livestock.
The department also has been contacting ranchers to keep them up to date on the general whereabouts of the wolf, which is protected as a federally endangered species in Western Oregon and California.
"Most people have been appreciative," Kovacs said. "We want to make sure we are doing our part to protect this animal so that it isn't mistaken for a coyote" and killed.
California Department of Fish and Game, http://1.usa.gov/IWs2pL