US Fish & Wildlife remote camera Photo of OR-7 captured on May 3, 2014 in eastern Jackson County on USFS land.

A love for wolves

By Rebecca Herren

The wolf called OR-7 (aka Journey) is known for his three-year, 4,000-mile trek across Oregon into California to find a mate. Since OR-7 was 10 months old when collared, scientists were able to document his range, and as his popularity grew, people worldwide followed his arduous journey. Medford author Beckie Elgin discussed his journey and her new book “Journey: The Amazing Story of OR-7, the Oregon Wolf that Made History” during her presentation on Aug. 12 at the Seaside Public Library.

Elgin’s interest in wolves began at around 12-years old in Des Moines, Iowa. Her father was a zoo director there and Elgin helped care for a variety of animals, including wolves.

Her love for wolves never changed, however, life eventually took over. Elgin worked as a nurse and raised a family. During a writing residency in 2011, the subject of wolves came up. Later a friend mentioned that OR-7 had dispersed from the Imnaha pack and was traveling south. Feeling a kinship, Elgin was intrigued and began her research on OR-7.

Misconceptions about wolves are many, she said, “you either love them or hate them,” but her interaction with people about wolves has been positive.

Most myths about wolves began mainly in Europe as folklore. Books and movies have profited by exhibiting the wolf as a ferocious, man-eating predator. Though most myths can be debunked, there was some basis to these stories “as wolves in Europe did at times prey on humans,” Elgin said. As more people immigrated to the United States, this folklore seeped into its human landscape.

Early settlers were intimidated by North American wilderness and tried to conquer it by destroying its forests, damming its rivers and killing its wildlife. By killing hoofed animals for food, clothing or sport, settlers were destroying the ecological landscape, creating a competitive pattern for survival between wolves and humans. Wolves lost.

The U.S. government and ranchers led efforts to eliminate them throughout the lower 48 states. By the 1920s in Yellowstone National Park, wolves were exterminated, leaving the park wolf-free for seven decades. By the 1930s, wolves were nearly extirpated from the Lower 48. Elgin notes in her book that experts believe approximately one million wolves were killed in the U.S. between the 19th and 20th centuries. The plan, she said, was to completely eradicate them.

After 70 years, Yellowstone came up with a reintroduction plan to manage the rising elk population, which had been overgrazing much of the park, affecting its rivers, forests — and the landscape itself. This gave scientists a unique opportunity to study pack dynamics when a top predator returned to an ecosystem that was once a native habitat.

Beginning in 1995, the first reintroduction of wolves began and within a 24-hour period, the wolves taken from the three different packs had the entire pack structure figured out. The second release took place from 1996 to 1997 with wolves from the Nez Perce pack.

The reintroduction of wolves dramatically changed the park’s landscape, decreasing the elk population and a once dying ecosystem began to flourish. Though there is some disagreement among studies that reintroducing wolves back into Yellowstone may not have been the primary solution to its dying ecosystem, evidence does show the positive effect of Yellowstone’s ecological health was attributed to the wolf.

On a trip to Yellowstone, Elgin was surprised to see both wolf and elk collared. “It’s amazing to see wolves in Yellowstone, but you get tired of seeing collars,” she said, noting that nearly all wolves are collared. “You just want to see the wolves in a more natural state without the collars.”

Collaring is still controversial in wildlife management, but valuable data can be recorded from collared wildlife. “The collaring has some great components to it. We would have not known Journey’s story if he hadn’t been collared, we wouldn’t have been able to follow him,” Elgin said, adding, “he wouldn’t have had so many fans, and I think he’s been an amazing ambassador for wolves.”

Elgin discussed the importance of the wolves’ role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Trophic cascades, she explained, is a theory that helps scientists understand the role of predators in the food web and their affect on the population and behavior of their prey. “This effect trickles or cascades down to other animals, plants and the environment in ways we are just beginning to understand.” The Yellowstone National Park study is one example.

As keystone predators, wolves contribute to the trophic cascades cycle. By hunting ungulates, wolves help prevent overpopulation. Bison and elk are natural prey for wolves, but when their food supply is not available, they go hungry and seek other means of prey — usually livestock.

Wolves were once a natural predator and it’s important for humans and wolves to live together. There are methods ranchers can use to scare wolves off, Elgin noted, and “these methods should be tried before lethal action is considered.”

During a discussion Elgin had with Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained how wolves need a large territory, as evidenced by OR-7’s trek and that it may not be long before they cross the Coastal Range, migrating with the black-tailed deer.

OR-7’s story continues to be one of the most inspiring wildlife stories in Oregon’s history. Since his dispersal, other wolves have followed his path across Oregon and into California. “Journey and those who followed him are doing their part to recreate a truly natural wilderness in this area, one that has not existed for over 60 years,” Elgin said.

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