Collaring the wild 

Biologists have been tracking wolves in the Northern Rockies for two decades, but the species doesn't always like to stay on the grid

OR7 has become something of a media celebrity in the western United States in recent years. At roughly 2 years old, the male gray wolf made a historic 1,000-mile trek from his birthplace among northeastern Oregon's Imnaha pack through the Soda Mountain Wilderness, the Klamath Basin and eventually into northern California. Biologists closely watched the wolf's sojourn beyond his home territory—a movement they call dispersal—by monitoring a constant stream of location data given off by the GPS collar OR7 had been fitted with in February 2011. He officially became the first documented free-roaming wolf to enter California in nearly a century.

OR7's story quickly attracted a global audience. But OR7 wasn't done wowing fans. He was captured by remote camera traveling with a female this May, the same month German-born filmmaker Clemens Schenk debuted a documentary about OR7 in Portland. The two wolves produced at least three pups in 2014, and researchers in Oregon are now considering replacing OR7's existing collar, which is expected to die sometime this year.

While intriguing, OR7's journey didn't come as much of a shock to wolf biologists in the region. The species has proven incredibly adept at dispersal since being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. OR7 is merely the latest example of how a species managed to recolonize the Northern Rockies in the span of just two decades.

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"We had about 60 wolves in 1994 in northwest Montana, and we had about a half dozen packs," says Mike Jimenez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Wyoming Gray Wolf Project Leader and one of the original biologists involved in the reintroduction effort. "Most of those just kind of dribbled down from Canada and then they started expanding a little bit ... We stuck another 35 in Idaho, another 31 in Yellowstone. Twenty years later, 15 years later, whatever, there's probably close to 2,000 wolves running around. That's all because of dispersal."

OR7 isn't the only wolf to venture such a long way in recent years. OR18, a male born to Oregon's Snake River pack, promptly took off east this spring after being darted and collared just one year earlier. Biologists in Oregon, Idaho and Montana were in constant contact regarding his whereabouts. Liz Bradley with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says his path toward the Bitterroot Valley came as welcome news; the agency has an ongoing elk study in the north end of the Sapphire Mountains, and hoped to get a few GPS collared wolves in the area for research purposes. "We thought we may have gotten a freebie," she says, "but it didn't turn out that way."

OR18's collar began broadcasting a mortality signal on the evening of May 31. Bradley discovered the wolf had been illegally shot by a poacher, a fate shared by at least 18 wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2013.

Poaching is one of several possible explanations given by biologists for why hundreds of collared wolves have gone missing since reintroduction. State and federal agencies throughout the region work together each year to compile a list of monitored wolves that have simply vanished. At last count, that list contained the radio collar frequencies of some 240 wolves. While a bulk of those have been missing so long that the batteries on their collars are likely dead, almost 80 could still be transmitting somewhere. In addition to poaching, biologists cite long-range dispersal and faulty batteries as potential reasons why those wolves are gone. Such disappearances have become less of a concern as the wolf population—and, subsequently, the number of collars in the wild—has increased. But a missing wolf can still create gaps in the data crucial to understanding and managing the species.

  • photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

By ground and by air, wildlife managers like Bradley continue to search those missing frequencies, hoping to pick up the beep that will put one more wolf back on the radar.

"Some of those have to be beeping somewhere out there in the world," says Kent Laudon with FWP's Region 1. "That's what drives me. I know they're out there."

Doug Smith can't stress enough the importance of radio collars in the wolf world. From reintroduction to delisting to the first state-managed hunting seasons on wolves, the species has become increasingly politicized, pitting ranchers and outfitters against conservationists and wildlife advocates. Some people love the animal and some people hate it, Smith says. Without the biological data collected through collaring and monitoring, what we know about wolves would become "unhinged," subject more to the wildly differing opinions held by those on both sides. The problem is no one understands "the real wolf," Smith continues, and that understanding is key to finding a fact-based middle ground.

"Collars root you in reality," says Smith, who started in wolf biology in 1979 and now serves as the wolf project leader and senior biologist at Yellowstone National Park. "They give you the basics. This is what wolves really do."

Smith has personally darted more than 300 wolves from the air during his lengthy research career; the number of wolves he's collared and tracked is closer to 500. He was among the team of biologists that first released 31 Canadian-born gray wolves in Yellowstone in January 1995 and 1996, and since then he's seen individuals and the species as a whole do the unthinkable. There were no state managers back then, he says, so if a wolf left the park, "I had to go after it." And leave the park they did, mostly on brief jaunts just across the boundary, but in some cases much farther, requiring Smith to fly over Jackson, Dubois, Dillon and nearly to Helena.

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