In January 2018, a female gray wolf left her pack in Oregon and began a long, meandering journey in search of a new pack or a mate. Known as OR-54 to biologists who tracked her through a GPS radio-collar, the wolf wandered through California, briefly crossed into Nevada, and made two trips back into Oregon. She covered at least 8,712 miles, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But then, in December of last year, her collar seemed to stop working.
A few weeks later, report Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler of the Sacramento Bee, the collar sent out a signal. Biologists traced the location and, to their dismay, they discovered that OR-54 had died.
“Unfortunately, what they found was her carcass,” Jordan Traverso, a Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, tells Maria Cramer of the New York Times.
In a statement, the department gave few details, saying only that it is “currently investigating the circumstances surrounding OR-54’s death.” But the statement did caution that “[g]ray wolves are covered under both the Federal Endangered Species Act as well as the California Endangered Species Act” and “killing a wolf is a potential crime and subject to serious penalties including imprisonment.”
The loss of OR-54 is particularly upsetting to conservationists given the gray wolf’s checkered history in the United States. Their tendency to prey on livestock has long drawn wolves into conflict with humans; in the early 20th century, the federal government began clearing cattle ranges of gray wolves, according to PBS, and the animals were nearly eradicated from the continental United States by 1950. In the 1960s, gray wolves were listed under what would become the Endangered Species Act, and the animals have since been recovering. But they occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
California’s wolves were among those wiped out by the extermination program. “After the arduous journey wolves have had to get back to California, the loss of any wolf is a step back for wolf recovery,” the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife said in response to OR-54’s death.
Gray wolves first returned to the state in 2011, when a male wolf known as OR-7 crossed from Oregon into California. He eventually returned to Oregon and established what is known as the “Rogue Pack”; OR-54, so-called because she was the 54th wolf collared by wildlife experts in Oregon, is likely one of his offspring.
OR-54 is believed to have been three or four years old at the time of her death. It is not unusual for wolves to break off from their natal packs, in order to search for a new group or to form a pack of their own. But OR-54’s journey fascinated biologists because it was “extraordinarily long,” Misi Stine, outreach director at the International Wolf Center in Minnesota, tells the Times. She travelled further south in California than any wolf since OR-7’s return to the state nine years ago.
On multiple occasions, OR-54 crossed into the territory of the Lassen Pack, the only known wolf group in California, according to the Sacramento Bee. But for the most part, her journey appeared to be a solitary one.
OR-54 is also believed to have killed several calves in and around California’s Plumas County, according to the Times. Today, gray wolves remain controversial features of the wild landscape. In November, for instance, residents of Colorado will vote on whether to reintroduce wolves to the state—a move that ranchers and farmers, among other groups, have opposed. Last July, the Trump administration sought to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, arguing that the animals had made a sufficient recovery.
But some experts say that OR-54’s lonely travels highlight the paucity of wolves in states like California, where fewer than a dozen of the animals are known to live. “I think the fact that she traveled so far,” tells Paulina Firozi of the Washington Post, “is an indication that we don’t have a lot of lone wolves for her to have met up with.”