A lone gray wolf that authorities have been tracking for months in southern Oregon crossed the state line into northern Siskiyou County earlier this week, becoming the first wolf known to be at large in California since 1924.
The radio collar on the young male, known to biologists as OR7, indicated the animal crossed into the state around noon Wednesday. Authorities say the animal is in "dispersal" mode, wandering the rugged California-Oregon border to define a home range and searching for other wolves to establish a pack.
"Whether one is for it or against it, the entry of this lone wolf into California is a historic event and result of much work by the wildlife agencies in the West," said Department of Fish and GameDirector Charlton H. Bonham. "If the gray wolf does establish a population in California, there will be much more work to do here."
Biologists caution that it's too soon to know if the animal will stay in California. But because there is no known wolf presence in Northern California, they say, OR7 could very well return north to reunite with some of the 24 wolves believed to be in Oregon.
Wildlife authorities in both states have been monitoring the wolf's peripatetic movements since September, when the 21/2-year-old set out from the Crater Lake area toward California. The young wolf, which frequently backtracked, had traveled nearly 800 miles by the end of November.
"He's been moving erratically; we don't know if he's going to stay or going to go," said Mark Stopher, an ecologist with the fish and game department. Stopher said wildlife officials are "excited and fascinated" by the movements of a member of a species that long ago had been driven out of California.
"I go to the Rockies every year, to Idaho," Stopher said. "The place where I hunt has wolves. It's really quite something to come across their tracks in the snow. It changes the air. It adds a wildness. This is why we are in this business."
Despite the fascination they hold for many, wolves have long been unwelcome in much of the West. Ranchers and hunters led efforts that nearly eradicated the predator in the lower 48 states by the 1930s.
Wolves began to repopulate in northern Montana in the 1980s and the animal was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. In the mid-1990s, 66 Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
As of last year, the Northern Rocky Mountain population had grown to an estimated 1,651 wolves. But that number is dropping in the wake of hunts approved in Montana and Idaho after Congress earlier this year removed endangered species protections over much of the population.