Last year, OR7, the first wild wolf to roam California in nearly a century, met his mate and started a pack in southern Oregon. Sightings of another wolf in the area were reported earlier this week. Author Joe Donnelly took a recent trip to Oregon, retracing his travels described in “Lone Wolf,” his story about OR7 that appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Orion.
Driving from Los Angeles to Ashland, Oregon, in the middle of August 2014, on an expedition to visit the freshly claimed territory of Oregon’s newest wolf pack, a pack established by arguably the world’s most famous and intrepid wolf, I am confronted by what could be taken as a sign from the gods. It descends from above just after Interstate 5 snakes through the canyons and valleys of Shasta and Siskiyou Counties and eventually slips past towering Mount Shasta, at 14,180 feet a stairway to heaven, or perhaps hell in this case.
It is right around here that the early afternoon sky starts to drop and turn gray as if a fog is settling. One is not. Just past Mount Shasta, the sun shrinks to a tiny, red dot while smoke and ash choke the air. The scene looks like it was lifted from the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The world appears to be on fire, and, in fact, at the beginning of California’s wildfire season, a lot of it is.
It’s not a pretty picture, but it starts to look better almost as soon as I cross the Oregon border. The tsunami of smoke and ash remains in the rearview mirror, but the sky ahead is blue and the sun is a familiar shape and color. A greener hue colors the nearby foothills and mountains.
This area, the Sky Lakes Wilderness and adjacent Crater Lake National Park, is much valued and fought over by conservationists and loggers. And, in keeping with his knack for walking into the middle of controversies, this is where wolf OR7—or “Journey,” to his many fans—established the first wolf pack in southern Oregon in decades.
OR7’s family, the Rogue Pack, is named for the Rogue River basin just west of Crater Lake where they seem to have settled. The designation means that the three pups OR7 sired with a female wolf in the spring of 2014 survived through the end of the year.
This appears to be a happy ending for a wolf that was considered a “genetic dead end” when I wrote about his long and lonesome wanderings around northern California for this publication. For him, it was a quixotic quest that failed to net him a California girl, but for the gray wolves that will inevitably follow in his paw prints—so long as wolves are allowed to continue their dramatic and tenuous comeback in the West—it did win California Endangered Species Act protections. No small feat for what was then California’s only wolf.
But the future is still uncertain. The toxic airborne event in my rearview mirror seems to ask which path humans will choose: the one behind me that leads to ash and ruin and a dangerously dry California, or the one in front of me, which seems to point toward healthy Oregon forests and a viable future for both wolves, the embodiment of wild nature, and man.
During his epic travels through California and Oregon between 2011 and 2013, OR7 became the first wild wolf to traverse the Oregon Cascades in more than sixty years. His excursion into California, where he spent most of 2012 making wide loops around Siskiyou, Lassen, Plumas, and Tehama counties, made him the first wild wolf in California in almost ninety years.
His perambulations earned him the nickname Journey while inspiring conservationists and alarming Old West interests such as ranchers, hunters, and loggers who see wolves, and what they represent, as a growing threat to their livelihoods. Now, to add to his legend, OR7 is the alpha male of the first wolf pack in southwest Oregon since wolves were extirpated here in the 1940s.
Genetic tests on his mate’s scat have shown that she came from the same neck of the woods as he did. The fact that another wolf made it this far and that these two met is something of a miracle—like two needles in two different haystacks finding each other. It’s also a testament to the genetic imperatives of wolves to spread out and establish biologically rich territories.
In Ashland, Oregon, some thirty miles past the California border where the smoke cloud still hovers, I meet up with Joseph Vaile, the executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KSWC). The lands under Vaile’s purview have been thought of for decades as prime potential wolf habitat and his organization does its best to protect what is now home to the Rogue Pack. Vaile has generously agreed to guide an excursion into the fringes of the pack’s territory in the one-in-a-million chance I might catch a glimpse of the creature that so captured my imagination.
Like OR7, Vaile is a traveler. He grew up in Dixon, Illinois, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, surrounded by what he calls “a sea of monoculture corn and soybeans.” The opportunity to be around the last remnants of wild America drew him out West. “I studied biology and got really interested in seeing some of these landscapes that are unaltered,” he says as we wind our way up into the mountains north and east of Ashland. “I felt like, god, that would really be one of the most important things I could do with my life, if I could have some influence on maintaining some of these biological reservoirs in unaltered states.”
After a brief stint as a field biologist charged with identifying threatened species and supporting old-growth stands for the Bureau of Land Management—the flipside of finding forest to cut—Vaile took up with KSWC. The area under his watch, what the center calls the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion, is a patchwork of protected wilderness areas and national forests stretching from the Grassy Knob Wilderness just south of Coos Bay, Oregon, down to its southeastern boundary just north of Lake Almanor and Lassen National Forest in California. This is where the southern Cascades meet the Sierra Nevada and where OR7 spent a great deal of his California tour. The Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion embodies an impressive number of mountain ranges, watersheds, topographies, and microclimates.
“It’s sort of a melting pot of different regions coming together—the Great Basin to the east, the California Floristic Province along the coast,” says Vaile as we ascend into the southern tip of the large stretch of backcountry that is Sky Lakes Wilderness. “We just passed a juniper tree—that’s kind of a Great Basin element.”
Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness, which comprises almost 114,000 acres, is home to OR7’s Rogue Pack.
The Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion is one of the last frontiers for gray wolves reclaiming historical Western territory. It forms much of an area that could support hundreds of wolves according to some studies. So, while gray wolf reintroduction is literally under fire in states such as Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana (thousands of wolves have been killed in state-sanctioned hunts since federal protections were rescinded in 2011), OR7 is staking a claim in one of the largest remaining potential habitats. Most importantly, and thanks in part to his well-publicized adventures, wolves have state protections here.
After an hour or so of gaining altitude, the roads get narrower, the switchbacks steeper, and my bearings more lost. Vaile insists he has a particular trailhead in mind, but its possible he’s being cagey. It’s important to keep OR7’s location a mystery. There are plenty of people who aren’t happy wolves have made it this far.
Finally, Vaile spots the trail he says he’s been looking for. We park and climb up into an anonymous section of forest at the edge of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. When Vaile walks into forests like this one, he isn’t just taking account of the flora and fauna; he’s mentally checking its health against the political, economic, and climatic challenges it faces.
“These systems are more stressed than they were before,” says Vaile. “All those different stressors—from cattle grazing to logging to water withdrawals—have an increasing impact on the integrity of the system.”
The arrival of wolves here brings challenges and opportunities. For Vaile, the challenge comes down to finding the calculus of coexistence among these competing claims on the land. “Just the mere thought of wolves being here strains people. And certainly, if anyone has to do anything different from how they’ve been doing it as a result of wolves being here, whether it’s changing their practices or being thoughtful in various ways, that creates a lot of pressure.”
On the bright side, Vaile says that OR7’s story has worked like a recruiting campaign for conservation. “There are a lot of people who stepped into this work because of OR7, who heard that story and became so enamored with wildlife recovery, and it’s a segue for a lot of people into the other areas we work in, whether it’s salmon recovery or forest recovery,” says Vaile. “He can be a gateway drug for a lot of people to get engaged in environmental issues.”
Climate change is the most pressing challenge to these ecosystems, says Vaile and other environmentalists working here. They would like to see the relatively intact forests and backcountry OR7 has been navigating protected to form a wilderness corridor that runs from northern California up through the southern Cascades and and Coastal Range. These are the habitat islands OR7 navigated to make his way to California back in 2012.
Many people see these pathways as increasingly important to other wildlife, too. “Scientists are telling us that wildlife would adapt to climate change by moving up in elevation and going north,” says Eric Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild. “As they are making those migrations and adapting, we want to have protected corridors they can migrate through, both north and south and with a wide band of elevation.”
One of the key components of this plan is the Crater Lake Wilderness proposal, a plan being pushed by conservationists to get OR7’s current territory designated as wilderness.
First, though, they have to protect it from several logging proposals that will cut into its edges. One of them, the Bybee project, would log 1,300 acres and build twelve miles of new roads in the area, according to Fernandez, and would effectively cut off several intact wildlife corridors in the process. He says the logs that would be taken from the cut could fill trucks stretched end to end from Medford, Oregon, to Crater Lake National Park.
Not surprisingly, OR7 is one of the weapons being wielded in a lawsuit Oregon Wild filed last June asking a U.S. District Court Judge to review the logging proposals. The suit maintains the plans pose a potential threat to the wolf and his pups, since they live in the vicinity of the proposed cut.
Back on the trail with Vaile, the slope we climb is full of old-growth stands with a generous supply of fallen trees supporting diverse flora and fauna. Chirping birds pierce the silence, butterflies flutter about, and small mammals scurry under logs and leaves. The forest is alive.
I’ve followed OR7’s travels, literally and figuratively, for years now. I’ve trekked around his natal pack’s territory and followed his tracks around Plumas County, California, where he summered in 2012—always hoping against hope for a glimpse of this charismatic character.
The new Rogue Pack’s territory is vast and the chances of seeing OR7 now are as slim as they’ve ever been, but somehow I feel closer. A couple days before Vaile and I set out on this trail, a hunter scouting deer and elk caught an image of a black wolf nosing around a large fallen tree in an old-growth hollow similar to the one we’re hiking through.
“We’re in the ballpark,” says Vaile, scanning the forest.
About a mile or so up from the trailhead, we come upon a relatively fresh pile of scat, which Vaile makes for deer droppings. Soon after that, we notice several piles of older scat left by a large predator. Vaile says it’s not from a bear. I snap some pictures, excited by the possibility that this is evidence that we’re following the footsteps of OR7 and his mate, though Vaile and others caution me that it’s more likely been left by a mountain lion, a species that is well suited to the steep terrain and thick forest here.
Returning to the trailhead, a film of ash has settled on the car like a thin wool blanket. During the drive down the mountain, heading toward Ashland, the dark cloud comes back into view, hanging ominously over the southern horizon like a warning.
I ask Vaile how, given everything these last remaining wild lands seem to be up against, his morale is holding up.
“When you look at climate change and when you look at the direction things seem to be headed in, so many problems we faced on the very first Earth Day have only gotten worse,” he says. “But there are certain glimmers of hope, and I think OR7 is one of those. I hope that there’s going to be a tipping point where as a society we choose the right path, where we are like, ‘Okay, we are in control of the earth and we can do it a different way.’ There’s still a lot at stake here that’s functioning and worth fighting for. Even if everything crumbles around places like this, maybe it will be a seed source for future wilding. I almost have to look at it like that.”
Back home in parched southern California, I e-mail pictures of my potential brush with greatness to Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, apologizing in my note for bothering him with something as rote as mountain lion scat.
A few days later, I get a reply.
“I don’t know, looks pretty wolf-y to me,” says Morgan.
Award-winning author and journalist Joe Donnelly was executive editor of Mission and State; co-founder and co-editor of Slake: Los Angeles; deputy editor of LA Weekly for six years, during which it garnered more awards than any alternative newsweekly in the format’s history, including the Pulitzer Prize; and editor of the seminal pop-culture magazine Bikini. He has written for numerous national and international publications.