EUGENE, Ore. — Every now and again, an animal comes along that, totally unwittingly, becomes the symbol for a moment or movement.
From Cecil the Lion to David Greybeard the chimpanzee to the pandas that finally mated once the coronavirus shut down a zoo in Hong Kong, some animals strike a chord just by being themselves.
Such was the case with Oregon’s OR-7.
Oregon’s seventh wolf outfitted with a GPS collar, OR-7 embarked on a journey in 2011 from northeast Oregon into California — a thousand-mile quest to find a mate. In the process he entered terrain that hadn’t seen wolves in almost a century.
Later, he returned to Oregon, found a mate, had pups and established the first wolf pack in Western Oregon since the animals were exterminated in the 1940s. He became the subject of two films and multiple books, was nicknamed “Journey,” and symbolized all the promise and peril of grey wolves reestablishing in the West.
The recent trail camera images (above) confirm that the three pups born to OR7 and his mate in 2014 have survived the winter and remain with the Rogue Pack.
Oregon wildlife officials said last week that it looks increasingly likely OR-7 died last winter; he hasn’t been seen with his Rogue Pack for months even while other members of the pack remain. He was estimated at 11 years old, while most wolves in the wild only live to 5 or 6.
“If he is gone, he will have left an indelible mark in the history of wolf recovery,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “His life and story contributed significantly to human understanding of what wolves are all about.”
But OR-7 also was very much a wolf, and that didn’t always go well. In his later years, his Rogue Pack was blamed for 24 attacks on livestock, again inspiring worldwide headlines when a rancher in Jackson County started using a lime-green inflatable dancing man in an attempt to keep the predators at bay.
Wolves targeted for extermination by Oregon’s founding fathers
In the winter of 1843, the founding fathers of Oregon government were looking for something to unite the settlers living in the Willamette Valley.
Efforts at political organization during the previous two years had failed, and it wasn’t until pioneers such as William H. Gray hit upon an ingenious idea — or, rather, an ingenious villain — as a way to congregate the diverse bands of settlers was realized.
First at the Oregon Institute in present-day Salem on Feb. 6, and then at the home of Joseph Gervais south of Champoeg on March 6, the settlers met to discuss a topic all could agree on: killing wolves.
The number of American settlers arriving in Oregon Country with flocks and herds had grown, and so had the number of attacks by predatory animals like wolves. They were described by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 as “very numerous in this country and exceedingly troublesome.”
And so, at the March 6 meeting, the first order of business was to establish a bounty, which was set at 50 cents for a small wolf, $1.50 for a lynx, $2 for a bear, $3 for a large wolf and $5 for a panther. (Native Americans were to receive half as much as whites.)
After this business was transacted, those in favor of self-government made their move. They pointed out that since measures had been taken to protect livestock, they should really consider measures for the “civil and military protection of this colony.”
The purpose of the meetings, Gray would later write, was to “get an object before the people upon which all could unite” (killing wolves) and use that unity to sow the seeds of civil government.
It worked on both counts.
Less than two months after what became known as the “Wolf Meetings,” the settlers gathered May 2, 1843, at present day Champoeg State Heritage Area and voted in favor of the first provisional government in Oregon Country.
As for wolves, they would hang around for another century, despite the state’s best efforts.
The Oregon State Game Commission began offering a $20 wolf bounty in 1913 in addition to the regular $5 paid by the state. The last recorded wolf bounty paid out by the state was in 1946 for an animal killed in the Umpqua National Forest.
“Efforts to destroy the wolf in this country were instrumental in formation of the Oregon Territory,” wrote Stanley P. Young and Edward A. Goldman in the 1944 book, “Wolves of North America.” “The ‘wolf meetings’ of Oregon … drew pioneer leaders of the northwest together as did no other objective.”
Wolves begin to return to Oregon
Wolves slowly migrated into Oregon from a population reintroduced to central Idaho by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995.
OR-7 was born into the Imnaha Pack in 2009 to parents who’d migrated from Idaho — B-300 (the 300th wolf to be radio-collared in Idaho) and OR-4 (the fourth wolf to be radio-collared in Oregon).
“His lineage is of wolves who traveled long distances to find mates and establish territory of their own,” Weiss said.
OR-7 would continue that tradition.
For years, there were rumors of wolves in Western Oregon — a paw print on Mount Hood here, a sighting on Santiam Pass there.
But OR-7 became the first known trailblazer. In September of 2011, he split from the Imnaha Pack and headed west, traveling more than 1,200 miles to become the first known wolf to reach the Cascade Range since extermination and the first to reach California in 90 years.
The trek made a folk hero of OR-7. A movie based on his life came out — using a stand-in wolf, of course — and a hearty band of travelers retraced his path to bring awareness to the challenges wolves face in the modern world.
OR-7 was, for a time, something of a household name.
In 2013, the celebrity wolf made headlines again by returning to the Southern Cascades with a mate and having three pups, establishing the Rogue Pack near Crater Lake National Park and the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
“It’s such a significant moment, such a big step forward to have wolves back in the Cascades where they belong,” Rob Klavins, a wolf advocate for Oregon Wild, told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “It’s a richer, healthier, wilder landscape with them in it. They’re a symbol of the unsanitized West. The real thing.”
But many did not share such enthusiasm.
Dalton Straus, a longtime rancher in the Rogue Valley, said the return of wolves was lunacy.
“My grandfather absolutely hated wolves,” the Central Point rancher told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “They would come in and attack our cows, sheep, chickens and turkeys, and he would shoot them when he got the chance.
“If he found out they were back, there would be a string of expletives you couldn’t publish anywhere. I don’t think he would understand why you’d want them back in the environment. Honestly, I don’t either.”
A family man
Among the many things people latch onto about wolves is how similar they are to humans. They’re born into families, or packs, go through an adolescent and young adult phase when they set off to find a mate and claim territory and eventually mature into family life.
“A wolf’s life is hard, and usually short,” Weiss said.
In that way, OR-7 was extraordinary.
While most wild wolves live to just 5 or 6 years, OR-7 had his first litter of pups when he was 5 years old and kept reproducing, siring around 12 pups between 2014 and 2018.
The pups OR-7 produced would become trailblazers in their own way.
A pup born to OR-7 in 2014 traveled across the border and founded the Lassen Pack, California’s only known wolf pack, in 2016, and had three litters of pups.
A difficult end
The father of OR-7 came to a difficult end.
OR-4, one of Oregon’s original wolves, was also a long-living wolf of at least 10 years and many pups. But in 2016, his Imnaha Pack attacked livestock five times in one month.
He was given the death sentence. In March of 2016, wildlife officials shot and killed four wolves in the Imnaha Pack, including OR-4.
Then-Oregon wolf coordinator Russ Morgan speculated that old age could have played a role in OR-4’s pack suddenly going after livestock instead of deer and elk.
“You have older wolves in less than optimal condition, and that could manifest into them seeking out more vulnerable prey,” Morgan told the Statesman Journal in 2016. “They were settled in an area with lots of young, roaming livestock that are a lot easier to take than other animals.”
A similar pattern could have occurred with OR-7. After being model citizens the first two years, the Rogue Pack was first blamed for an attack on livestock in 2016.
Since then, the pack has been blamed for 24 confirmed depredations, including nine incidents in 2019.
Wolves remain protected in the western two-thirds of Oregon under the federal Endangered Species Act. Without it, OR-7 could have been targeted for lethal removal, just like his father.
Environmental groups have partnered with local ranchers to find non-lethal deterrence measures, including a green dancing man intended to scare off the wolves, and more recently, with a 3-mile long fence around a ranch near the wolves center of activity, according to the group KS Wild.
The fence has shown some early success, and there’s hope the wolves OR-7 fathered in southwest Oregon will find peace with surrounding ranchers.
“OR-7’s journey across thousands of miles captured national attention because he offered a story of hope and recovery,” said Joseph Vaile of KS Wild. “We connected with this story of a wild wolf traveling across a huge area in search of a home and a mate.
“The best thing we can do to honor the legacy of OR-7 is to continue to work on wolf recovery and co-existence where wolves have recovered,” said Vaile.