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Golden State Wolf

New documentary celebrates lone wolf's journey into California

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THERE WOLF Niwa, a wolf from Idaho's Wolf People of Cocolalla, served as a stand-in for OR7 in the documentary.
  • THERE WOLF Niwa, a wolf from Idaho's Wolf People of Cocolalla, served as a stand-in for OR7 in the documentary.

In 2011, an intrepid two-and-a-half-year-old male gray wolf loped across the Oregon border into California's Siskiyou County, making him the first known wolf to step foot on the state's soil in 87 years. Biologists believe more wolves will follow.

Because he was wearing a radio collar that identified him as wolf OR7, wildlife officials could track his movements. He had traveled more than 700 miles from northeastern Oregon to California, where he spent nearly 15 months moving through seven different counties, presumably searching for a mate. He crossed back into Oregon, and last year biologists confirmed he had found his mate in what was thought to be a wolfless place, siring three pups in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, a 1.6 million–acre wilderness that straddles the California-Oregon border.

Last month, Oregon wildlife officials reported evidence of a second litter of pups. OR7's family is now known as the Rogue Pack. It's the first pack in western Oregon and the 10th pack in the state since wolves from Idaho started crossing the Snake River into Oregon in the 1990s.

OR7, later named "Journey" in a naming contest that, among other things, aimed to make him too famous to kill, became a celebrity because of his beat-the-odds trek in search of a mate. It's a great story, and now it's a movie, OR7: The Journey.

The documentary screens Aug. 26 and 27 at Summerfield Cinemas. The first screening has sold out.

"This is a special wolf," says director Clemens Schenk. "I decided it was going to be a great topic for a documentary."

Schenk says he did not anticipate the audience response. The film has sold out everywhere it's been shown, and it leaves many viewers in tears. Organizers had to move to larger theater in Santa Rosa to accommodate demand.

"[This wolf] must have really touched people," Schenk says.

There is no video of OR7. The documentary features a stand-in wolf from Wolf People of Cocolalla, a wolf sanctuary in Idaho.

Gray wolves once roamed California from the Oregon border to San Diego County. But hunters, trappers, ranchers and ignorance put an end to that. The last known wolf in California died in 1924 in the jaws of an iron trap near Litchfield in eastern Lassen County's high desert. The wolf was reportedly old and weighed only 53 pounds. Adult wolves typically weight from 70 to 150 pounds. The animal was also missing part of one of its rear legs, probably from the same kind of trap that killed him. Part of the excitement of OR7's story is that he traveled near the spot where that wolf died more than nine decades ago.

As moving as OR7's story is, the bigger story is that more wolves could be moving into California.

"There's enormous drama in all of this," says Amaroq Weiss, a wolf specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity. The Petaluma resident is featured in the film, and has been working to protect wolves and other animals for years.

Weiss and other wolf advocates foresaw the repatriation of wolves into California because of their growing numbers in Oregon and Washington. "This is something many of us had anticipated for a long time," she says.

Because OR7 spent so much time in California and left scent markers, it's believed other wolves from the Rogue Pack or elsewhere may migrate to California to create packs of their own. Just last month, a remote camera captured a photo of what state wildlife officials believe is another gray wolf in southeastern Siskiyou County. This one isn't wearing a radio collar, so its movements can't be tracked.

Because of suitable habitat and prey, wolves could do well in California, Weiss says. Most important to the wolves' reemergence in the state, she says, is public sympathy to their plight and an appreciation of the key role they play in a well-balanced ecosystem. The area of California, Washington and Oregon, she says, is "the best place for wolves in this country in the long run."

To pave the way for future wolves, the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies filled a petition in 2012 to protect the animals under California's Endangered Species Act. Two years later—on the same day officials confirmed that OR7 and his mate had given birth to pups in southern Oregon—California granted protection to gray wolves. The state's Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently developing a wolf-management plan that they will release for public comment.

"Wolves will live anywhere humans let them," says Weiss.

Will Californians let them live here?

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