An Oregon gray wolf’s epic walkabout in Southern California is pushing the boundaries of the endangered species’ range.
In late September, California wildlife officials received three reports of gray wolf sightings in Ventura County - one county up the coast from Los Angeles near the Los Padres National Forest. California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff then found recent wolf tracks in the same area.
The wolf is believed to be OR-93, a 2-year-old male from the White River pack, whose territory covers part of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation near Mount Hood.
“If this is OR-93, he’s traveled the farthest south we’ve seen since 1922 when one was captured in San Bernardino,” said Jordan Traverso, a spokesperson for the California wildlife agency.
The Ventura County reports indicated the wolf was wearing a purple collar. OR-93 was fitted with a purple tracking collar last summer before he dispersed south. That collar stopped transmitting in April from an area a little farther north in California.
“For the most part, he’s been… staying away from any kind of city centers. However, he did cross over Highway 99 and Interstate 5, and both of those are major artery freeways in our state,” she said.
OR-93 traveled through 16 California counties before his collar went silent. Traverso says it’s “probable” that the wolf sighted is OR-93, but the agency won’t know for sure without forensic evidence.
“If this wolf is in Ventura County, you’re starting to get closer into the Santa Barbara area. But this is the northern (part of the county). It’s very rural. It’s not like he’s at the beach with a whole bunch of people or anything like that,” Traverso said.
Just as in Oregon, opinion is divided on the issues of allowing wolves to expand into California, reviving the species there a century after wolves were extirpated. Livestock producers are a strong voice of opposition.
Oregon removed gray wolves from its endangered species list in 2015. The Trump administration removed federal endangered species status last January. But wolves are still protected as an endangered species at the state level in California. All of California was historically gray wolf habitat.
“If you would have asked me even just a few years ago if I thought gray wolves would ever make it to Ventura County, I would have said ‘You’re crazy!” said Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “I think it’s indicative of the fact that California has plentiful suitable habitat for wolves.”
Defenders of Wildlife has been pressing the Biden administration to restore federal protections for gray wolves.
It’s common for young wolves to leave their home packs to find mates or look for food. They often travel long distances during these dispersals.
Oregon’s original famous wandering wolf, OR-7, traveled from the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, down into California in 2011. The wolf eventually found a mate and established the Rogue Pack in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon.
But OR-93′s journey has been even further than that. California officials estimate that OR-93 has traveled about 1000 miles (as the crow flies) on its journey from northern Oregon to Southern California.
“If one wolf could get down there, then that means that it’s possible, and other could be too. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could find a mate,” Traverso said.
While Oregon has 23 wolf packs, California only has three — all in the northern part of the state and all with some link to Oregon’s now-defunct Rogue Pack.
Traverso says CAFW wants to trap and re-collar OR-93 so they can resume monitoring its travels but says without additional sightings that indicate the wolf’s current location, it’s not really feasible.