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By Skye Kinkade
A gray wolf known as OR-85 as seen on trail cam footage in Siskiyou County last month.
It’s official: two wolves that have been carving out a territory in Siskiyou County over the past few months have made the area their home – and now they have a new name.
The Whaleback Pair’s territory encompasses about 480 square miles of Siskiyou County and extends slightly south into Shasta County, according to a map recently released by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The pair was named after the 8,500 foot mountain on the north side of Mt. Shasta’s flanks that resembles a whale’s back, which is within the wolves’ “very large home range,” said Kent Laudon, CDFW’s wolf specialist.
“Typically packs are named for some geographical feature where their home range is,” Laudon explained. A map of the area from 1900 refers to the mountain as Black Crater, but it was renamed Whaleback on a 1930 map.
What is believed to be a female gray colored wolf with OR-85 (black colored wolf with green colored satellite location collar) in Siskiyou County in late December. The female is scavenging on an old carcass that is believed to have been possible road kill, said Kent Laudon, California Fish and Wildlife’s Senior Environmental Scientist Specialist.
Siskiyou County Wolf Liaison Patrick Griffin said there have been no confirmed issues between the wolves and local livestock since the male wolf, OR-85, first came to the county in November 2020 in search of a mate.
Evidence collected by Laudon and trail cam footage from several sources show OR-85 was probably successful: he connected with what’s almost certainly a female wolf soon after arriving in California.
The wolves have been moving around Siskiyou County together since then, and Laudon has been hard at work collecting samples of their genetic material to determine more about the mysterious female wolf’s origins.
“We don’t have a full DNA profile on her yet,” Laudon said of the gray colored wolf. “We have her DNA on some hair and a scat – neither yielded complete profiles but the hair is more complete than the scat and based on that our CDFW geneticist reports that the results are consistent with female.”
The gray-colored wolf is most likely a female, said CDFW wolf biologist Kent Laudon. Behind her, OR-85 rolls on the ground in this still photo taken from trail camera footage in Siskiyou County.
That sample has gone to a genetics lab at University of Idaho, Laudon said, where geneticists will compare it to other wolf DNA from Oregon, Washington and Idaho to see if they can determine what pack she was born in before dispersing to find a mate.
Once the CDFW is 100% sure the wolf is a female, she will be named WHA01F: WHA for Whaleback and 01F for the first marked female Whaleback wolf, Laudon explained.
“OR-85’s ID will remain the same. If there are pups this year, all of their profiles will be collected from pup poops at pup rearing locations after they have left,” Laudon said. “They will be named WHA02, WHA03, etc. with the relevant sex initial. So all the known wolves that we have sampled in California have identification.”
Griffin, who worked as Siskiyou County’s Agricultural Commissioner for 10 years before retiring in 2015, is a local rancher himself. He works closely with Laudon, the CDFW, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, local ranchers and the county to mitigate issues that might arise with Siskiyou’s new wolf residents.
This map, released by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, shows the home territories of the Whaleback Pair and the Lassen Pack as of March, 2021.
Wolves that are dispersing “usually move on,” he said, but these two wolves “tend to stay in this location,” hence their new moniker.
Griffin said there has been mortality among local livestock since November, but in the suspicious cases there was not enough evidence to determine how the animals died or whether wolves were involved.
“When there are wolves around, people are always suspicious,” Griffin said. “Ranchers think, ‘will a wolf kill this calf or not?’”
Laudon said OR-85 and his friend continue to travel through cattle operations on winter range “but there’s been no issues so far.”
Wolves typically survive on big game like deer and Elk, but they will also eat roadkill, Laudon said.
What is thought to be a female wolf was caught on trail cam footage in Siskiyou County in late January.
It’s important to note that the CDFW nor any other organization has reintroduced wolves to California, Laudon said. Instead, these wolves and their predecessors have traveled hundreds of miles after being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995 and 1996 in search of mates and territories to call their own.
OR-85 was born part of Oregon’s Mt. Emily Pack. He was collared in February of 2020 and struck out on his own in June. The wolf, with shaggy black fur, took a short trip to Nevada and then returned to Oregon before crossing the border into California’s Modoc County in early November.
Two days after entering the state, OR-85 made his way to Siskiyou County and has been here ever since, Laudon said.