Late last month, a collared gray wolf known as OR 18 crossed the border into Montana. Biologists from the wolf’s home state of Oregon were in constant contact with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offering updates on OR 18’s location, and it was something of a historic moment. OR 18—a subadult male captured and collared by helicopter in March 2013—was the first known wolf to have made it all the way from Oregon to Montana.
“We were all watching this wolf closely to see where it settled,” says FWP biologist Liz Bradley. Instead, OR 18’s trek ended abruptly between 6 and 9 p.m. on May 31 when a poacher shot and killed him in the Bitterroot Valley.
Biologists are not done learning from OR 18. Data from his collar is helping to explain the genetic connectivity among wolves throughout the Pacific Northwest. Since the reintroduction of wolves 30 years ago, biologists have repeatedly stressed the importance of genetic exchange. OR 18 was a prime example of how far lone wolves can disperse to reproduce or establish new ranges, Bradley says, “though obviously he didn’t live long enough.”
Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, adds that OR 18 corroborated much of what biologists knew about dispersing wolves. Unlike settled wolves, dispersers travel as much in daylight as they do by night. They also cover huge distances; another wolf, OR 7, traveled from northeast Oregon as far south as the Sacramento area and eventually found a mate. It’s disappointing when collared wolves are shot or killed in vehicle collisions, Morgan says.
“But there is knowledge in that information as well,” he adds, “because it illustrates that dispersing wolves may have a higher level of vulnerability than non-dispersing wolves.”
That vulnerability is compounded by the differing state-level management approaches. Wolves are still under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act in the western portion of Oregon. In northeastern Oregon, the species is delisted federally but still classified as endangered under state law. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all have established hunting and trapping seasons for wolves—seasons that extend to any wolf inside that state, regardless of origin.
“When a wolf from Oregon comes into Montana, it doesn’t matter if it’s from Oregon,” Bradley says. “Legally, it’s a Montana wolf.”
FWP is currently offering $3,500 for any tips leading to an arrest in the poaching of OR 18. And while his trek may be telling biologists a lot, OR 18 isn’t the only Oregon wolf to meet a sudden end.
“Of the six that dispersed,” Morgan says, referring to OR 18 and five others that have crossed into Idaho, “they’re all dead.”