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Lone gray wolf crosses into California
Updated 1/16/2012 12:44 AM ET
Eighty-eight years after the last gray wolf in California was killed, a young male has crossed into the state from Oregon, igniting much teeth-gnashing among ranchers, optimism among conservationists and new headaches for state officials.

The wolf, dubbed OR7 by biologists, was tracked by his GPS collar as he crossed into California on Dec. 28. He was born into an Oregon pack originally from Idaho, where federal wildlife biologists reintroduced the species in the mid-1990s.

"It wasn't a huge surprise to us. We knew it was going to happen; we just didn't know when," says Jordan Traverso of the California Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento.

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"We knew they'd get to California eventually," says Patrick Valentino of the California Wolf Center. "Wolves don't pay attention to state lines. This wolf has no idea it's in California."

Gray wolves once ranged across the continental United States except for the Southeast, where red wolves ruled. Government-sponsored wolf-eradication programs, which offered bounties up to $50 per wolf in an effort to protect livestock, led almost to extinction of the species outside of Alaska by the middle of the 20th century. Only a group in Minnesota remained.

When the Federal Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, wolves were the first animal listed, says Gary Frazer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.

As part of the mandate to bring back the species, two small populations were established in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the winter of 1995-96, Frazer says.

"It has been a spectacularly successful recovery effort," he says.

The gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies has come back so strongly that it's been removed from the Endangered Species list in Montana and Idaho and delisting has been proposed in Wyoming. There are an estimated 1,800 gray wolves in the Rockies now. The population in the western Great Lakes, in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where wolves also have been delisted, is up to an estimated 3,000 wolves, Frazer says.

The task in the states where wolf populations have been delisted is management. In California, where they're still considered endangered and likely will be for years, it's a discussion that is just starting.

The disappearance of wolves triggered environmental disruptions because they had been an important top predator in healthy ecosystems. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, their reintroduction has helped heal some of those changes. Elk moved away from lowlands and streams to avoid wolves, allowing willow, aspen and cottonwood to grow back. This provided food for beavers and habitat for songbirds and shadier streams for trout and other fish. Coyotes declined because wolves keep them away from their territories, leading to an increase in small rodents that was a boon to other carnivores.

As for OR7, he's just looking for love, says Michelle Dennehy, Wildlife Communications coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Salem, Ore. OR7 is heading south in hopes of finding a mate. With no other wolves in California it won't do him much good, she says.

"Historically and statistically there's no evidence of wolves being a threat to people," Valentino says. There are only two known wolf attacks in the past 100 years in the U.S. or Canada.

Will OR7 go on to harm California livestock? The odds are yes, Oregon's Dennehy says. "OR7 comes from a pack involved in 20 confirmed livestock attacks," she says. He was "probably involved in some of those, but we don't have proof. He was only collared in 2011."

Jack Cowley, a rancher with 1,200 head of cattle in northern Siskiyou County in California, says one wolf isn't a worry: Trouble will come when others arrive. "It's when they start the pack up that they start causing problems. When you're in big country like I am up here, it's hard to keep track of cattle on a day-by-day basis. There's no way we could know how many animals they killed."

Last Tuesday, Fish and Game officials met with the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, she says. They spent an hour detailing where things stood and an hour listening to public concerns. People have very strong feelings about wolves, both pro and con, she says. "There's a lot of legend and lore" about them, she says.

The Siskiyou meeting got heated at points, with ranchers arguing that wolves could be a threat to their stock and possibly their families, while conservationists were pleased with OR7's arrival.

But overall it was good, says Cowley, who attended.

" We need these dialogues, because if we can talk about it we can blunt some of this emotion and we can come to some kind of solution," he said. "Not everyone's going to like it, but at least we'll have a solution. Instead of 'shoot anything that moves.' "

Posted 1/15/2012 8:53 PM ET
Updated 1/16/2012 12:44 AM ET
This Nov. 14 photo shows OR7, the lone gray wolf that crossed into California on Dec. 28.
By Allen Daniels, Medford Mail Tribune, via AP
This Nov. 14 photo shows OR7, the lone gray wolf that crossed into California on Dec. 28.