Lone Wolf

Illustration l Stephanie van Ryzin

THE NIGHT IS DARK on a narrow slip of canyon floor alongside the North Fork Feather River. The mountains are big and close, their steep, tree-covered slopes tall enough to block out the moon and stars. Flashlight in hand, I follow the sound of roiling water toward the river, though my chances of finding what I’m looking for are slim. My objective is a moving target, one that’s highly elusive by nature and even more so under the cover of a black night.

It is hard to tell at this point whether my path to California’s remote Plumas County has been one of fortune or folly. Online, the “lodge” where I’m staying in Belden, population twenty-two, is an appealing, rustic western Sierra getaway. In real life, it’s a trailer park hotel. But I may well be on the right track. When I checked in and asked about the object of my obsession, the thickly bearded innkeeper with the feral, blue eyes nodded and told me that his dog went crazy about a week ago. “I’ve never seen him like that before,” he said, gazing out the window across the river and into the forest.

I hurried to my assigned trailer, where a large buck camped out front was munching on flower bulbs, and checked my laptop. I scanned back through the reports posted online by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and sure enough he was in the area when the innkeeper’s dog went barking mad. And has been since.

Just being close to where he’s been — may still be — is enough to send me out into the night. Maybe he is up on the bluff across the highway where the hydropower pipe climbs eight hundred feet up the mountainside like a giant snake disappearing into the trees. Maybe he’s tracking that buck with eyes honed for picking up the slightest of movements from great distances, even in the dark. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch a glimpse of him — the first wild wolf to enter California in more than eighty years.

NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO, when I first read a small news item about the wolf with the blandly scientific designation of OR7 — the seventh wolf collared in Oregon — crossing into California, I was caught off guard by the intense affinity I felt for him and his journey. It wasn’t just the grand scale of his adventure, with the late summer and fall months spent traveling the length of Oregon, his Christmastime crossing into California, the subsequent seven-hundred-mile midwinter foray through the state’s remote northern counties, only to cross back into Oregon in March before doubling back to the Golden State in April. Having logged thousands of miles in search of my own place in the world, I could relate. But the awareness OR7 sparked in me of a moment’s wild possibility had to do with something bigger, deeper, and older than all that.

It was the winter of Occupy, a time for reckoning with the past decades’ economic, spiritual, and environmental betrayals. I had hopes that bankrupt paradigms might fall and something new, better, and more honest might take their place. My own reckonings and rebellions had mostly left me out of money and ideas, and frankly I needed something to believe in. And then came this wolf — this long-toothed shadow of our bastardized best friends, a thing we tried our damnedest to eradicate — trotting insouciantly into California.

OR7’s return struck me as a singular act of defiance — by god, nature, fate, whatever words you prefer. I rejoiced at his coming south, so far that he was now howling at the backdoor of our failing civilization, forcing us by his very presence to consider the question, how are we going to live? Can we surrender some of what we’ve taken? Can we accept that OR7, nature’s foot soldier, the vanguard wolf of California from the clan of creatures we couldn’t tame but could only kill, deserves some of this, too? Or, will we continue to insist the land and all that’s on it, under it, and over it is ours to do with as we please? Who better, I thought, to stalk our hypocrisies and upend our delusions than the most mythologized and demonized animal in history?

I felt compelled to try and get closer to this young wolf, formidable at 105 pounds, measuring nearly three feet at the shoulder, six feet in length, and possessing jaws that can crack an elk femur the way a nutcracker can crack a walnut. So, early last September, I drove into Plumas County, California, following the North Fork Feather River, which begins auspiciously near Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range. The river drains some twenty-one hundred square miles of western-slope Sierra into Lake Oroville, one of the largest reservoirs in the country. It has carried countless dreams downstream: gold dreams, ranching dreams, hydropower, rail, and timber dreams — each a tributary in the larger river of dreams that settled the American West and tamed wild California.

Many of these dreams are dead or dying, but I could still see their vestiges as I drove downslope through the Feather River Canyon where defunct railroad tracks cut into the hillsides and shorn mountaintops peak through low clouds and fog. The occasional Sierra Pacific lumber truck rumbles along the Feather River Highway past mining cottages that dot the riverside and stare down diminishing prospects with the occasional splash of fresh paint and flower boxes.

Except for a few stubborn holdouts, the era of man seems just about done in Plumas County. It’s an eerie, forgotten landscape, and there’s a certain poetic justice in OR7’s arrival. Bounty hunters killed OR7’s last remaining California cousin near here in 1924, back when wolves were considered to be an enemy of manifest destiny. OR7, though, doesn’t seem to have revenge in mind. He has yet to take sheep or cow from the descendants of those who shot, trapped, poisoned, and burned his kind to extinction in the West.

But this hasn’t stopped some locals from greeting his arrival as if the devil himself were paying a visit. As soon as his epic trek signaled a wolf with Golden State aspirations, the hysteria began. To calm local fears of pending doom, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted public meetings featuring wildlife officials, celebrity wolf experts, government resources managers, and a highly agitated public — all awaiting the imminent arrival of a solitary, thirty-month-old Canis lupus.

After one meeting, Marcia Armstrong, a supervisor for Siskiyou County, where OR7 dallied briefly before moving on, told the Los Angeles Times that she would like to see all encroaching wolves “shot on sight.” Adding to the tinder were ranchers warning that a wolf repopulation would be “catastrophic.” Other folks spread rumors of conspiratorial wolf smuggling by federal agencies, and of a government out to trample rights and make it harder to log, mine, and dam the rural West.

Those sympathetic to OR7’s plight had very different demands. Some even pleaded with officials to import a mate for the lone wolf, who was clearly looking for love in all the wrong places.

BACK ALONG THE BANKS of the North Fork Feather River, the water is just a moving silhouette. I turn off the flashlight and crouch down at the river’s edge, scanning the area without moving my head, trying to be as still as possible, looking for movement the way OR7 might, though at 120-degrees of arc my visual field is only two-thirds of his.

Wolf stories, like ghost stories, emerge through insinuation and grow into their own kind of lore: large tracks in the mud, a moonlit howling that is too resonant to be the nattering of coyotes, a tingle down the spine. Or, if you’re an unlucky rancher, a hollowed-out rib cage where once was a sheep or calf. A wolf seen is a wolf seen mostly by accident, happy or otherwise.

I turn my back to the river and face the other way, toward the hillside, where that buck outside my trailer probably came from. The air is still. Nothing moves but gnats and mosquitoes. No sounds but the gurgling river. I feel exposed, not so much hunted as haunted. And I like it.

The next morning, I drive further north, into territory OR7 may be claiming for himself. The road passes through Lassen National Forest and eventually skirts under the 14,179-feet-high Mount Shasta, just about an hour from where OR7 crossed over from Oregon. The route travels a California rarely seen by those who live within the clutches of the coastal megalopolises. Here, salmon run in the rivers and bald eagles fly so low you can almost look them in the eye.

OR7 crossed this road and others many times as he traveled south. I scan the valley floors, farms, and ranches, picturing him loping along the edge of the highway at night, filled with the curiosity and the courage of one whose only experience of fear is that which he inspires. I see him stealing through private property where easy meals and misguided liaisons with canine cousins tempt his hungry soul. I imagine all the itchy fingers waiting for a shot at his shadow.

The air feels wild and dangerous and alive in a new way. So do I. And I begin to understand even more why OR7’s incursion matters, why the land is so relieved to feel his feet pushing down into its soil once again. The land knows what I know driving into the untamed night — that we’re less than we can be without him.

KAREN KOVACS, the wildlife program manager for California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s northern region, has agreed to meet me at her office in the coastal town of Eureka. When I arrive, it is damp and foggy and Kovacs says she’s exhausted. OR7’s arrival has put a mountain of to-dos in her threadbare department’s inbox. Foremost among them is the petition filed by several environmental organizations to get gray wolves — this gray wolf — protected under the California Endangered Species Act. The petition triggers a taxing process of studies, peer reviews, hearings, and a series of votes, beginning with whether or not it is even warranted.

It’s hard for Kovacs to imagine another animal getting this much attention. She points out that a wolverine, absent from California for as long as wolves, has recently made it into the Sierra with little fanfare. “People go cuckoo over wolves,” she says. “We’re not managing wildlife; we’re managing people and people’s perception of wildlife to a large degree. With OR7, you can almost draw the lines politically.”

Those lines are basically drawn at how far we will go to accommodate wolves. How many entitlements — from hunting to heehawing in the backcountry on snowmobiles to grazing livestock on public lands — are we willing to forego to ensure that they are also part of the landscape?

From the beginning, the answer was the least number possible. Gray wolf reintroduction in the West was so controversial when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began bringing wolves back into Yellowstone in 1995, that the agency had little choice but to define Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves as an “experimental, nonessential species.” That meant that no critical habitat would be set aside for them, and no restrictions on economic interests would accompany the recovery effort. The prevailing logic was that since wolves came with so much baggage—as fabled beasts revered and feared in folklore and fairytale, and as supposedly depraved killers of livestock—the species couldn’t withstand the backlash against land-use restrictions the way the spotted owl could. But as apex predators whose domain once covered all of North America, wolves are indeed a land-use issue. We got rid of them and Native Americans at around the same time and for roughly the same reason: they were in the way.

It wasn’t long after the questions of wolves (eradicated) and Native Americans (mostly eradicated) were resolved that settlers had license to do just about anything they wanted with the land. Not surprisingly, this led to the extreme overgrazing that culminated in the Dust Bowl, and which spurred Franklin Roosevelt to sign the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, a modest initial attempt at reining in free-range ranchers. This was followed by the establishment of the Bureau of Land Management, as well as nascent notions that public lands were for more than cattle, logging, mining, and railroad interests. Then came expansions to the National Park system, the creation of the Endangered Species Act, and, from a rancher’s perspective, lawsuit-happy tree huggers making it harder and harder to earn a living off the land.

As wolves like OR7 move farther west from the Northern Rockies, they do, in fact, give conservationists a powerful new weapon with which to relitigate a number of policy wars over the disposition of public lands. Returning wolves are the canaries in the coal mine for other decimated species — brown bears, bison, and the once-vast herds of ungulates that grazed the land before cattle displaced them. As such, they carry much of the weight of the past, and the fight for the future, on their backs.

It’s a fight the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evidently hoped to duck out on as soon it could declare the gray wolf “recovered.” In order to do that, the agency determined there must be a minimum of three hundred wolves and thirty breeding pairs spread across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Of course, how many wolves are enough to ensure the survival of a species practically wiped from the lower forty-eight states is a question without a real answer. Nonetheless, based on those numbers, federal protections on wolves in those states were lifted in 2011, and responsibility reverted to state agencies.

Gray wolves still enjoy Endangered Species Act protection in Washington, Oregon, and California, where their numbers are negligible — or just one. But that may be fleeting as well. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced its intention to lift all federal protections for gray wolves, except for the tiny Mexican gray wolf populations in New Mexico and Arizona, thus leaving California to decide for itself how it wants to deal with OR7 and his brethren.

Meanwhile, OR7 goes about his business. A prodigious traveler, he has already covered roughly three thousand miles in his peripatetic existence, indicating estimable strength and endurance. He’s a first-rate hunter who dines mostly on deer and small game, and has now made it through two winters alone. When chasing prey, he can achieve bursts of nearly forty miles per hour, covering fifteen feet in a single bound. He has also shown a knack for taking over elk kills from mountain lions — a wise choice since a lone wolf is much more vulnerable to mortal injury than a pack wolf.

OR7 spends a good amount of time communicating with one leg lifted, marking trees, game trails, and carcasses, and covering other animals’ marks — delineating a vast territory and sending out messages. Some are warnings, others invitations. Wolves are gregarious by nature and often monogamous, so OR7 is likely scattering calling cards of a sort, expressing his desire to settle down with a mate and start a pack of his own. Given the dearth of eligible companions, he’s mostly talking to himself.

I ask Kovacs what might be motivating OR7’s prolonged travels. “You were young once,” she says. “What were you thinking? This is normal behavior for young wolves.” But OR7 isn’t exactly young anymore. He’s creeping up on middle age for a wolf, and this wolf is without the safety, structure, and society of a pack. Kovacs doesn’t deny that every day OR7 turns up on her radar is a surprise.

“It’s a hard life out there,” she concedes. “Wolves that move this great of a distance are usually a genetic dead end.”

A YOUNG GRAY WOLF stands on the Idaho banks of the Snake River on a fall day in a land where winter comes early and leaves late. The wolf contemplates taking the leap. What would make him or her plunge into the cold current and swim for the other side? It’s what young, would-be alphas do. They disperse in search of new mates and new territory, thereby strengthening the gene pool and reducing habitat stress.

A wolf could do worse than Oregon’s Wallowa County. It’s a beautiful, rugged patch twice the size of Rhode Island with only seven thousand humans, dominated by the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and the Zumwalt Prairie, one of the largest savannas on the continent. For an ungulate-eating apex predator, the area — with an estimated 22,400 mule deer, 2,500 white-tailed deer, and 15,600 Rocky Mountain elk — is a promised land.

If the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone nearly twenty years ago were going to continue their westward expansion, that river needed to be crossed. But when it was, the other side was less than welcoming. The first known wolf to brave the crossing was captured in 1999, put in a crate, and shipped back to Idaho. The next year, two more wolves from Idaho were found dead, one hit by a car, the other shot.

Wolves, though, are nothing if not intrepid, and in January 2008, a radio-collared female wolf from Idaho, soon to be known as OR2, found a fellow traveler soon to be christened OR4. They crossed the river successfully, and together they started the Imnaha pack, named for a spot they favored along the Imnaha River. OR7 was born into their second litter in 2009, one of five pups in a family of immigrants. By 2010, the pack had at least fourteen members.

The usual howls of ruination greeted the arrival of Idaho’s wolves in Northeast Oregon, even though the Imnaha pack averaged only about a cattle kill a month. In May 2011, two members of the pack were killed, and an order to kill two more was issued by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife that September, until legal challenges put a stay on wolf executions in Oregon. Nonetheless, OR7 decided it was time to go and started off on his walkabout.

The Imnaha pack’s territory cuts a vast, crescent-shaped swath around the small Wallowa County town of Joseph, Oregon, nestled in the lap of Sacajawea Peak. It’s one of the key battlegrounds in the wolf wars, and a local named Dale Potter, with a flair for the dramatic, has his sights set on OR7’s relatives. Potter, who flew helicopters in Vietnam, and says he still craves excitement, leads rallies encouraging folks to “smoke a pack a day” and to “shoot, shovel, and shut up.” He posts signs around the area proclaiming wolves to be “sadistic killers” smuggled back into the area by their brothers-in-arms, the Nez Perce tribe, which, he says, wants to reclaim its land. “The wolf has kept me busy,” says Potter. At the frenzied height of his wolf demonizing, a panicked local rancher reportedly got down on his knees in church and prayed that wolves wouldn’t kill him and his family.

Potter’s paranoia and demagoguery may seem practiced, but they articulate genuine anxieties that began in earnest when the sawmills started shutting down. The mills, says Potter, were the thread that stitched the fabric of this community together. When the jobs left, families left, schools closed, and things began to unravel in ways that cappuccino drinking second-home owners couldn’t quite put back together. For him, the reappearance of wolves symbolizes the sort of governmental interference and environmental regulations that he believes kill jobs and destroy a way of life he wants to preserve. “I don’t hate the wolf,” says Potter. “I hate the politics that brought this invasive species here.”

I ask him if he’s ever seen a wolf. “To tell you the truth,” he replies, “I have not seen a wolf.”

AT FIVE THOUSAND FEET, Joseph is blanketed in fresh snow on the weekend before Halloween. With its quaint, Old-West ambience, the town already feels like a Christmas card come to life, and when Wally Sykes walks into one of the few restaurants open after eight p.m., he looks like an undersized Kris Kringle. We sit down for dinner at a wood table near the bar as burly men with thick beards give us the stink eye. Sykes is used to this by now. “It’s strange to be actively involved in a schism within a community,” he says.

Sykes is Joseph’s most outspoken wolf advocate, and he has agreed to take me into Imnaha pack territory the next morning. Before he started trying to save wolves, Sykes rescued his Malamute, Kumo, who had wandered into a fur trapper’s snare. The explicit cruelty of trapping spurred him to start TrapFree Oregon, and it was only a matter of time until he was dragged into the wolf wars.

Sykes became a full-fledged activist after coming upon tracks near his home at the base of the Wallowa Mountains. They were canine for sure, but the animal’s gait and paw size dwarfed those of his hundred-pound dog. “I never thought I’d be seeing wolves in my lifetime,” says Sykes. “I was thrilled.”

Now, he spends a lot of time in the backcountry, tracking the Imnaha pack as it moves around the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, and Zumwalt prairie. When he’s not in the field, Sykes is often working on his Wolf News Update, a weekly newsletter from the frontlines of the wolf wars featuring news, studies, blogs, and, since states recently started issuing wolf-hunting licenses, the grim body count.

He is one of the few people to see Wallowa’s wolves up close and is adamant they belong here. “Oregon is not a hunting preserve, it’s not a game farm, it’s a functioning ecosystem and its wildlife is supposed to be managed as a public trust for all its citizens,” he says. “Not just certain hunters and ranchers.”

Sykes shares the belief of many ecologists and biologists that the absence of these apex predators resulted in a sloppy crumbling of the ecological pyramid that eventually trickled down to vegetation. This idea is one that wolf-hunter-turned-pioneering-conservationist Aldo Leopold expressed in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac:

I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddle horn.


The return of wolves to the West has indeed resulted in a trophic cascade of benefits to the ecological landscape. In Yellowstone, for example, the absence of wolves meant the park’s elk and deer were fat, slow, and stupid. They destroyed streambeds, overgrazed grass, and overbrowsed the shrubs and aspens. When wolves were reintroduced, the days of deer and elk lazing around riparian areas like hoofed couch potatoes were over. Yellowstone’s aspen groves made a comeback, streambeds are in better shape, shady shrubs have increased oxygen levels in creeks and streams, thus improving fish habitats, berries are dropping, seeds are scattering, grasses are growing. A case can be made that wolves are far better wilderness managers than humans will ever be.

But for Sykes it’s a moral issue as well. “For one hundred years, wolves were hounded, hunted, trapped, hacked, and poisoned until every single one was exterminated. They were extirpated in a brutal, vindictive, ignorant campaign,” he says. “I would like to see this wrong righted. I would like to see some compassion and understanding for our most persecuted wildlife.”

THE NEXT MORNING we’re up early and packed into Sykes’s car. Kumo is in the back, looking out the windows. We pass a large gravel pit on the outskirts of town that used to be a bone yard for livestock carcasses. Sykes says this may have been what attracted wolves to the area in the first place. The pile was removed and government agencies now work with ranchers to better dispose of bone piles, as well as to put up red pennants that seem to scare wolves, and other hazing programs to keep wolves away from livestock. When predation does occur, ranchers are reimbursed for their losses. Sykes is on the committee that doles out compensation.

We skirt the edges of the Zumwalt, “the wolf highway,” and continue up into higher elevations to a spot Sykes won’t identify. He points out deer tracks in the snow along the side of the road — a calving area for deer and elk. “In the spring and summer, there are wolves all over here,” he says.

When the road runs out at the top of a hill, we get out of the car and trek into the snow wearing bright orange hunting caps. Even with a heavy sky hiding the highest peaks from view, the land is dramatic in white, green, and gray, marked by deep gulches, rolling hills, and formidable mountains. It doesn’t take long for senses to sharpen. You see things you might otherwise miss — a rabbit darting into some shrubs, a tiny spider sitting on the snow crust, deer climbing the other side of a gulch. We inspect coyote and deer tracks in the snow.

This is where OR7 learned how to be a wolf. This is where he first saw deer like the ones I spotted on the opposite hillside. This is where he became part of the everything we’ve lost our connection to, the everything that we desecrate so casually. Sykes says he can see people transform when he takes them into wolf country, that simply being where wolves roam does something special to humans. “Wolves are good for our souls,” he says.

We continue along the timbered edges of ravines and through meadows covered in shin-high snow periodically marked by tracks. Eventually, we reach a destination deep in the woods. It’s the rendezvous point the Imnaha pack used for its previous summer’s litter — where the alpha female nests with the pups and other members of the pack bring food or report for nanny duties. OR7 was likely nursed near here a few summers ago.

“I’m proud of him,” says Sykes of the pack’s current alpha, OR4, who picked this spot with its abundant game. “He chose well.” At 115 pounds, OR4 is the biggest wolf in Oregon. In five breeding seasons, OR4 and his mate, OR2, have never failed to deliver a litter or keep their pups alive. “He’s a helluva wolf,” says Sykes, of OR4.

I wonder if Sykes thinks the same of OR4’s famous offspring. He contemplates this for a minute and chuckles. “OR7’s certainly determined and he’s certainly self-confident,” he responds. I ask him why OR7 would leave such a beautiful, wild, and abundant place. “I think wolves have ambitions,” Sykes explains. “They want to get out on their own. To a wolf, a land with no wolves is a vacuum. It’s not unusual for a wolf to go into a vacuum and keep going.”

WHEN WE KILLED OFF all the wolves from the West, we told ourselves a lie — that we were separate from, or superior to, all that with which the wolf communes; that we knew better what to do with the land than did the wolf. The return of wolves to our landscape has delivered us with a rare opportunity to make amends with that lie and to embrace the simple truth: how we live with wolves is how we live with nature — either in harmony or discord. The choice is ours to make and, as this hyperactive era of floods, fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes shows, the stakes are high.

My search for OR7, I came to realize, was a quest for insight into what we’d do with the opportunity wolves presented. Right now, we’re mostly killing it. Since the feds lifted protections, nearly 1,200 wolves out of a population of almost 2,000 in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have been slain by hunters and trappers. Hunters in Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to more than 4,000 wolves, have killed nearly 500 since hunts were sanctioned. Michigan became the sixth state to approve wolf hunting. It’s scheduled to take place during the winter holiday season. Guns, crossbows, and foot traps are all permitted.

The hunting lobbies say the killings are necessary “management” to reduce livestock predation and to relieve pressure on game such as deer and elk; federal wildlife experts say there are enough wolves to withstand the slaughter. I don’t buy either argument.

In the $79 billion cattle industry, there were 94 million head of cattle tromping around the lower forty-eight states in 2010, the most recent year for which there are statistics. Wolves killed 8,100 of them, or 0.000086 percent. Even vultures killed two thousand more cattle than wolves. And while any livestock loss to an individual rancher can be significant, it’s worth noting that respiratory illness, digestive issues, calving complications, weather, and plain negligence killed about 3.8 million cattle in 2010, costing the industry $2.35 billion. By comparison, wolves cost it $3.6 million, most of which was reimbursed by taxpayers.

Similarly, the cry from hunters that wolves decimate deer and elk populations isn’t borne out by fact. Ungulate numbers are up in most game management areas across the West where wolves live, and slightly down in just a few. Deer and elk are just harder to find. Wolves have made them more alert and elusive — made them better at being deer and elk, and us at being hunters.

As for the argument that there are enough wolves now to withstand the hunts, there were a hundred times more back when we almost exterminated them. These hunts wreak havoc on the highly developed social structure of wolves, tearing families and communities apart, and orphaning ill-prepared adolescents, who are then more likely to get in trouble. Hunting and trapping wolves serves no purpose for sustenance or profit. It’s done for the basest of reasons, for a trophy that is nothing more than a token of shameful ignorance and folly. After all we’ve done to them, wolves deserve better. We deserve better, too.

WHILE WOLF-HUNTING season was just getting underway in neighboring states, California’s wildlife commissioners met in Sacramento to vote on whether or not to consider protecting California’s lone wolf under the California Endangered Species Act. The room was packed, and the battle for hearts and minds went on for hours. Conservationists, wolf lovers, ranchers, cattlemen associations — all had their say, although neither side seemed much moved by the other. Not surprisingly, no one there had actually seen the wolf in question.

In the end, the commissioners agreed by a narrow margin that the petition to list the gray wolf, this gray wolf, as an endangered species did indeed warrant consideration. The vote triggered numerous studies, reviews, and meetings that should result in a decision any day now about whether to protect wolves in California. If approved, it’ll be largely symbolic until more wolves wander across the border, prompting perhaps a new moniker to consider: CA1. But for anyone looking to make amends with the truth, it would be a welcome symbol, a small bit of progress in the tortured dance between humans and what’s left of the wild.

Meanwhile, OR7 just keeps moving. In late February, he left Plumas County, where I crouched in darkness beside the river with naïve hopes of seeing him, and started retracing his long-ago steps north. By mid-March, he had crossed back into Oregon. Maybe he wants to know if you can, indeed, go home again. Or maybe he’s hopeful yet that he’ll find what he’s looking for.

The only thing we know for sure is that time outruns even a wolf. And as every new day dawns unfulfilled, the epic story of OR7’s journey to find a place for himself, to start a family and be the first of his kind so that others may follow, takes a turn toward a more familiar fate: that of a lonely middle age spent on the outside looking in while death does double time to chase you down.

Support for this article was generously provided by the Summerlee Foundation.

Joe Donnelly is an award-winning writer and editor from Los Angeles. He recently launched Mission and State , a nonprofit experiment in digital news and narrative.


  1. What a great piece of writing. Very poignant. Nicely done!

  2. Though Joe never found his white whale, this story is riveting. Seriously. It’s time for bureaucrats to get their heads out of their asses when it comes to the gray wolf (and a lot of other things) and consider the long game.

  3. Oh the wild possibilities this could all lead to. Thank you for such an informative piece nestled into a great read.

  4. I wish so many landmarks and place names were not mentioned in the article, and that the California Dept. of Fish and Game did not make the wolf’s whereabouts accessible to the public. I live in Oregon, and ODFW stopped publicizing OR-7’s movements in this state for his own protection. Loved the writing though!

  5. Great article. I do agree with LIsa Lochner about not making the wolf’s whereabouts known, for its safety. Potter is frightening. I hope his following is small; but if they are heavily armed, it only takes a few to do a lot of damage.

  6. Lisa and Julie, OR7’s whereabouts have never been specifically listed by ODFW or CDFW. The maps of his path, which both agencies did publish, are two years old. CDFW did post his general vicinity when he was in California, but only by county.

  7. Thank you so much for this beautiful eloquent narrative. It so wonderfully highlights the plight of wolves today. So tragically misunderstood. I wish more people could read this because it sends a powerful message.. Man needs wolves and without them our landscapes are depleted and empty of soul.

  8. It is striking to me that this article is being published at the same time that Deke Weaver (whose works were referenced in the last issue’s “Landscapes of the Shamans” by Barry Lopez) is finalizing “Wolf”, the latest performance in his remarkable “Unreliable Bestiary” series. I encourage all those who found this article engaging to keep an eye on this performace, which relates very similar material through a different medium. I’m so pleased to see continuing attention put onto these important companions in our ecosystemic journey.

  9. Echoing Lisa Lochners’ comments, I, too, chastised the DFW for publicizing the whereabouts of OR-7. Wolves, like most of us, are creatures of habit, and tend to return to the same areas. I thought the Department was setting the wolf up to be shot by some yahoo, likely a rancher.

    I was in a conversation at the time with the California Fish & Game President, Jim Kellogg, who stated that he “would be happy to shoot a wolf, but you’d never see a photo of it” (a presumed allusion to the shooting of the mountain lion in Idaho by fellow commissioner Dan Richards, which unfairly cost Mr. Richards his job.

  10. @ Eric Mills, thank you for giving me (a Californian) some insight into the mindset of Mr. Kellogg. Disheartening to say the least but not surprising.

  11. Lone wolf? Hybrid in all legal aspects at best. I urge every Oregonian to stop this fiasco USFWS calls “grey” wolf Introduction. Proven non native hybrids will be shot on sight throughout Oregon by responsible Oregonians that know the difference from our native wolves that had been present thru the introduction of the hybrids USFWS called “greys”. The Grey wolf in Oregon is much more elusive and we must protect it by killing every Hybrid on sight. These hybrids are also spreading the EG parasite everyplace it takes a dump. Shooting them is the only answer. OR7 is spreading EG into California and southern Oregon and some people have no clue what this hybrid is creating in our very own backyard. Eco bio terrorist at large.

  12. Before Barry Lopez and L. David Mech, there were the Craighead brothers. They studied wolves and grizzlies extensively in Montana for many years, beginning in 1959. I was living in Bozeman when the wolves returned to Yellowstone and I commented on the EIS. Now, if they leave, they can be shot. What have we been reduced to, that we are steadily moving backward in time?

  13. Kevin Watson, your agenda is showing.
    Most reputable sources give only 2 wolves in North America – the Gray and the Red. Animal sizes can vary depending on its circumstances – trending bigger based on food supply etc, and trending smaller when food is scarcer. There are some variations showing regionally with regard to brain size but wolves in the US are mostly gray wolves with small pockets of red. Re: the “hybrids” you’re referring to – it’s hard to know exactly what you mean, although it’s clear you’re itching to shoot yourself one.

  14. As a resident of Wallowa County where it seems that wolves are always in the news in a less than lyrical way, I was eager to read this article. I personally believe the definition of wild lands should include sustainable habitat for apex predators such as wolves and brown bears. And certainly the story of OR-7 is romantic and Joe told it in a wonderful way. The symbolism is very compelling.
    I ran into problems though, when his story hit closer to home. There are a couple of factorial errors that, while they are not huge, they are disturbing as, for me, they call into question other facts that are cited in the article. The elevation of the town of Joseph is closer to 4000 feet than 5000 feet. And it’s a tourist town decked out with bronze sculptures on every corner, a testament to the bronze foundry industry that has usurped the timber and forestry jobs that were the dominant economy 30 years ago when I moved here. But who can define “quaint”? No schools that were open when I moved here have closed, in spite of what Dale Potter says. And Joe completely ignored the Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area that surrounds it, when citing the wild lands in Wallowa County (and that contribute to the expanse of undeveloped land that provides wolf habitat). And no one can see Sacajewea Peak from Joseph as it is well behind Chief Joseph Mountain, the 9600’+ peak that dominates the skyline. Is fact-checking not something Orion does?
    I know the principals Joe cites and they could not be farther apart in their ideas, as he describes. Was there no place in his story to share the perspective of the ranchers who may loose few animals to wolf predation, but who also have increased stress in their herds from the wolves’ presence that can cause cattle to run through fences and reduce calving percentages? They may be compensated for the actual animals they lose, but not for the less obvious economic impacts. And many are participating in woking groups to try to reach management solutions for the wolves, along with Wally Sykes. I missed a voice from the middle. And I’m still waiting to hear a wolf howl from my back porch that is just outside the wilderness area.

  15. Wonderful stuff, Joe. I live far away from the West, and any wolves at all, but this essay really speaks to my experience (and lack of experience) of wilderness.

  16. I came across this article on longreads.com, and it is not only a fine piece of long-form journalism, but also a compelling account of the need to do more to restore decimated wolf populations. As an aside, throughout my childhood, I had frightening dreams about wolves, no doubt spurred by the scary folklore surrounding them. After reading this, a new dream is beginning to take shape, and in it, I too am looking for the wolves, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in their restored habitats.

  17. I’m curious whether the author has encountered other wolves in the wild.

  18. I am grateful for this article. I am particularly grateful for the systemic picture that Joe paints. I know he is “preaching to the choir” but he articulates things so well that he gives the rest of us language to do the same.

  19. As I was driving alongside Salmon River in Idaho late July, I was overjoyed to see a wolf cub dart across the road in front of me as if in defiance of momma’s instructions, ears back, hind legs tucked under in a gait I recognised from our Welsh Collie when he was playing with us!
    I so-o empathise with your perspective on wolves…

  20. Imported Canadian wolves (aka “grays”) that were turned loose by the fed’s USFWS in Montana and Idaho in 1995 and 1996, have multiplied into thousands and are eating and killing everything in sight.

    Historical moose herd numbers in Yellowstone: 1,000.

    Number today? Virtually none. All eaten by lovely “grays.”

    Historical elk herd in Yellowstone in 2000? . . . 20,000.

    Number today? . . . 3,000 and change. Can you say gray wolves?

    Wildlife decimated. Number of livestock these noble animals are killing annually in the states? Try 8,000 on for starters.

    If you want facts about wolves, read Will Graves’ book, Wolves in Russia: Anxiety Through the Ages.

    But if the mournful wolf howl brings tears to your eyes, by all means keep attending your “wolf howlings.” Or “wolf watchings.” But do not attempt to hike into areas unarmed where these trash predators run unchecked because they’ll kill and eat you as quickly as they kill and eat a moose, elk, mule deer, big horn, cow, calf, horse, sheep, or guard dog. Just, you’re a lot easier to catch.

    And if you don’t have time for Graves’ book, here’s a quick read about wolf attacks on humans by T.R. Mader:

  21. Lance’s comment and link to the wolf fatality article illustrate his failed grasp (or more likely personal agenda) of who the wolf is and isn’t. Per Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and most other science-based sources, there are only 2 species of wolf in North America: the gray and the red (Mexican). “Canis lupus colonized North America during the late Rancholabrean era.[27] The larger Canis dirus was already established there, but it became extinct 8,000 years ago, after the large prey it relied on disappeared. …With the extinction of the dire wolf, the gray wolf became the only large and widespread canid species left.[20] The North American recolonisation likely occurred in several waves, with the most distinctive populations occurring in the periphery of the range. These populations (C. l. arctos on the high arctic islands, C. l. lycaon in the eastern forests, and C. l. baileyi in the far south) may represent survivors of early migrations from Eurasia. C. l. baileyi and C. l. lycaon display some primitive traits and systematic affinity to one another.” (Wikipedia) So much for whining about the re-introduced wolves being bigger/stronger/meaner than the old ones we exterminated.
    Lance and everybody should also keep in mind that for the last 80-plus years, elk/deer herds and moose populations have been inflated due to lack of natural predators – coyotes and mountain lions taking some but those predators also feeling the stress of hunting and habitat loss. That Yellowstone elk herd of 20,000 he mourns was also responsible for overgrazing and wrought havoc on the trees and vegetation in Yellowstone as the Park rangers will tell you. Wolves keep a herd healthy by keeping it on the move. They take the sick and weak. When cattle are grazed with no oversight (sheds for newborns etc), on land that was once wolf hunting territory, ranchers should and must expect some losses and budget accordingly – or shed their herds! Even so, in 2012 wolf kills account for less than 1 percent (1%) of livestock loss – so they aren’t “eating everything in sight”. There aren’t enough wolves on the planet to do that – not even the biggest, baddest wolf can be in 2 places at once.
    The article by TR Mader, on even the most casual read-through, clearly shows that fatal wolf attacks in the wild in the lower 48 states are rare to the point of being a nine-days’-wonder since 1900. And Lance will surely admit that anybody, wolf or human, would understandably be ferocious if cornered in a zoo, or kept in a basement or on a chain.

  22. This is a great article, and I am all for protecting Wolves. The part I liked the most was when Joe talked about the Beginning of the Imnaha pack. I found it interesting that OR2 met OR4 before crossing the snake river into oregon. I also appreciated learning that a lot about OR7. For example he was 1 of 5 pups, also I found it fascinating that in only a year the Imnaha pack had increased to 14 members in total. I feel like people in general are biased against wolves because they don’t really know enough to think anything else, or maybe someone had twisted them up into believing that wolves were bad. like that rancher from Wallowa county who got on his knees in church to pray for his family’s protection from the wolf. Anyway I really loved reading this article.

  23. Thank you for this excellent reportage. Not only is Joe Donnelly’s quest heart-warming, so is his important and accurate coverage of OR-7’s journey. OR-7’s fate is emblemic of wolf recovery. I just taught this essay in my composition class as an excellent example of nature writing and essay form.
    Lastly, we’re running some wolf stories of our own for wolf awareness week at http://www.theecotoneexchange.com.


  24. I loved reading this article; it was inspiring to read about the organizations and individuals who are willing to fight for this single animal. Hope and inspiration, I feel, are two very powerful assets that we can utilize. Finally, someone is able to see the larger picture. For me, Mr. Donnelly sums it up when he writes, “… how we live with wolves is how we live with nature – either in harmony or discord.” I feel that this statement is an extremely important mindset to have and one that should be thought about and reflected on extensively. I think it is extremely important for people to start educating themselves on the importance of the wolves’ presence, as well as how beneficial they are to our lives, and to the ecosystems that surrounds us. (The same should be said for every other entity of nature.) They have just as much right to be here as we do, if not more. Remembering just how ghastly we have treated wolves in the past, and considering the current climate crisis we face today, we should be making all the more effort to ensure their return.

  25. The argument Dale Potter introduced was interesting. He observed a loss in jobs and the collapse of a community after a protected area was established for wolf reintroduction. His credibility however, seemed to be diminished after he was shown to hate wolves and publicly advertise wolves as “sadistic killers”. We nearly destroy their species and all we can stand to sacrifice is some livestock and a small portion of security while beyond the confines of our homes. At the very lease we owe these wolfs our protection, yet politicians think a mere 2000 individuals can survive being unprotected from humans. Our current ability to lay waste on a species vastly overshadows the misguided attempts that nearly wiped out the wolves of California 90 years ago. Please, let’s not make the same mistake the carrier pigeons witnessed. I think hunters have no place to hunt wolves. In fact, I think they are motivated by greed rather than protection of their precious livestock and family. I found this quote agreeable: “It’s done for the basest of reasons, for a trophy that is nothing more than a token of shameful ignorance and folly”.

  26. This article was interesting to read. I really didn’t know that their were going to be that many stake holders having a so called “wolf war.” It was good to see that a lot of people wanted the wolf to live and some wanted to bring more wolves in. I really wouldn’t have guessed that base on humans history with wolves. This shows me that people were more educated now on how important the wolves were not only to our ecosystems but us. Though many people are against the reintroduction, for similar reasons, Potter’s argument was the most interesting one I have heard. Most people didn’t want them back for the protection of livestock and other property. Hunters believe that they lower the number of game animals. Potter on the other hand said that the reappearance of wolves symbolizes the Government’s way to kill jobs and destroy a way of life he wants to preserve. It was interesting that someone like Potter brought up that type of topic involving community. However, it was great to see that the author used the wolf as a type of message to the human society. The message was that the wolves have been here longer and know how to manage nature and not humans.

  27. Evermsince Imcan remember, I have had an affinity for wolves. Growing up as a child, I used to pretend that I was a pioneer that rescued an abandoned wolf pup and nursed it back to life… Similar to the story of White Fang, though I played out the fantasy before the film was ever produced. As I grew older, I began to realize that my chances of seeing a wolf in the wild during my lifetime were few and far between. A few years back, I purchased a documentary DVD published by Discovery which put on display the work of Jaime and Jim Dutcher. The Dutchers spent six years living in a tented camp enclosure within the Sawtooth wolf pack territory in order to deter common misconceptions humans have bestowed upon wolves. If you havn’t seen the film, you should; it’s absolutely amazing! It is entitled Living With Wolves and was produced in 2007. What this has to do with the piece I have just read is that most humans are scared of wolves repopulating the lower 48 because they believe the popular myths that have demonized wolves in our societies history. The story of OR7 traipsing along the California backcountry makes me smile because it means there is still hope that I may one day be able to fulfill my childhood dream of encountering a wolf in the wild.

  28. This article was motivational. I loved the comment that was made near the end that says “when we killed off all the wolves from the West, we told ourselves a lie-which we were superior to all that with which the wolf communes; that we know better what to do with the land.” What a statement, how many ecological projects have ended up worsening the environment and biodiversity that these animals live in? Some people argued that killing these species was necessary for management to reduce livestock predation and yet we have people telling us that we have enough wolves to slaughter them and they will survive. If that statement were true; then where are all the other wolves? Why is there only one that they are tracking? I agree with Rory’s argument. Why should we judge who can live and who has to die? Let evolution take its course and that leaves one less thing for humans to worry about.

  29. Definitely a very interesting article. Like the article points out, this lone wolf is more than a lone wolf, it represents the drive and determination and will that we all wish we had. He is also the center piece of high-stakes controversy. In my opinion, there is absolutely no sense in not establishing some sort of protection by the state of California for OR7 and the ranchers and other stakeholders should understand that. Granted I am not a rancher and have never had my heard decimated by wild wolves, but chances are, most modern ranchers haven’t. It’s the wolf’s history and lore that people are scard of, not the wolf.

  30. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and am captivated by the attention the OR7 received. Kovac’s statement was quite compelling, “We’re not managing wildlife; we’re managing people and people’s perception of wildlife to a large degree.” The reason why wolf reintroduction is such a controversial and hot topic is because of the opposing relationships different people identify with the wolf. I am also curious about the motivation behind the OR7’s lengthy travels. Joe Donnelly does a great job articulating an uprising issue along with a clever story.

  31. Great thought provoking article. A wild wolf in California certainly is a big deal. I have been a fan of the wolf my whole life and had many an awesome encounter over the years that have convinced me beyond any doubt that they, like the Orca and other creatures, represent a much higher evolved life form than pathetic and savage man with his endless delusions of superiority. Anyone who has locked gaze with those soul-piercing, fiery eyes or felt his own “heart’s abysmal loneliness” expressed in their lone howls knows instantly why the wolf has commanded so much attention and respect/disrespect. I guess there will always be folks who can’t handle what the presence of wild, free-roaming wolves stirs deep inside them.

  32. My husband and I run 300 mother cows using only non lethal livestock protection methods. Our cows calve peacefully in pastures alongside coyote packs, badgers, eagles, bobcats and in some areas mountain lions.
    I am also on the advisory board of Project Coyote, a national coalition of ranchers, scientists and educators working to foster coexistence between people and wildlife.
    The author’s descriptions of anti wolf attitudes in rural communities (shoot, shovel and shut up–smoke a pack a day) is sadly commonplace.
    Project Coyote, along with other conservation groups, unsuccessfully sued the U.S. Forrest Service in an attempt to halt the recent Wolf and Coyote Derby, a killing contest that took place just after Christmas in Salmon Idaho. Awards were given for the most coyotes killed and children were encouraged to attend. Thankfully, no wolves were killed in this contest but many coyotes were not so lucky.
    Camilla Fox, the executive director of Project Coyote, wrote an excellent piece in the Huffington Post regarding this contest and the flawed science of using killing contest to manage wildlife. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/camilla-fox/twoday-holiday-killing-de_b_4471553.html
    Let’s hope that there are enough clear heads and compassionate voices to stem the tide of ignorance, hatred and fear that face wolves and other predators that are simply trying to do the job they were put on this earth to do.

  33. Wow I fell so sorry for wolves.I never new the life outside our door could be this amazing

  34. Thank you, Joe. Finally got to read this on a snowy day at Pensacola Beach. It resonated. Made me mad/sad!

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