A gray wolf’s epic journey ends in death on a California highway

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

The young gray wolf who took experts and enthusiasts on a thousand-mile journey across California died last month, ending a trek that brought hope and inspiration to many during a time of ecological collapse.

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The travels of the young male through the state were a rare occurrence: he was the first wolf from Oregon’s White River pack to come to California and possibly the first gray wolf in nearly a century to be spotted so far south.

The wolf, known as OR-93, was born in Oregon in 2019 in the White River pack. The pack is managed by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. A tribal biologist had collared OR-93 in June 2020 when he was just 14 months old – not fully mature but nearly ready to look for a mate – and took a photo of him, looking regal and languid after effects of the tranquilizer wore out.

OR-93 first entered California on the last day of January 2020, dipping his paws into Modoc county. Historically, gray wolves were found throughout California, but they were probably extirpated from the state in the 1920s. In 2014, officials listed gray wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act, making them illegal to hunt, trap, harass or harm.

After his sojourn in California, OR-93 zagged back to Oregon, returning once more to California at the end of February.

He moved remarkably fast, Weiss says, padding around 16 counties between the first week in February and the end of March. He traveled more than 935 air miles (straight miles on a map), over three months in search of a mate and territory.

All of California is a historical wolf habitat, and we like the things that belong here to be here

Jordan Traverso

After reaching Yosemite national park, the wolf made a remarkable decision: he made a hard turn west and crossed the Central Valley of California – which means he somehow crossed three of the state’s busiest roads – Highway 99, Interstate 5 and Highway 101. “How he did that is anyone’s guess,” says Amaroq Weiss, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. He may have found routes to cross under the highways through creek and river crossings, or he may have actually made his way across the road – which he would have had to do in the dead of night because the roads are so busy.

By 5 April, he had made it to San Luis Obispo county, on the central coast of California. At this point, his radio collar stopped working (researchers still do not know why). Some wolf fans worried that he had died, but then tiny signal flares went up again and again: proof of life for OR-93. A farmer’s trail camera near a water trough captured a grainy picture of a wolf with a collar in May. In late September, three separate people spotted a wolf with a purple collar in Ventura county – one even captured video of him on a cellphone.

“This wolf, he will go the distance,” said Weiss.

When a driver called in a dead wolf on the side of Interstate 5 in November, it sent a shock wave through the wolf community.

Authorities quickly identified OR-93 through his bright purple radio collar, and an investigation and necropsy results determined he died from trauma consistent with vehicular strike.

Looking at the place where OR-93 was killed, Weiss wonders if the wolf was headed back to Oregon to find a mate, after having struck out in California. November and December is the time when wolves are looking most aggressively for a mate – they prefer to be coupled up before mating season comes in February. Maybe the lone wolf realized he couldn’t find what he needed in California and decided to head back home.

US Highway 101 passes between two separate open space preserves on conservancy lands in the Santa Monica Mountains in Agoura Hills, California.
US Highway 101 passes between two separate open space preserves on conservancy lands in the Santa Monica Mountains in Agoura Hills, California. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

OR-93’s days were probably driven by his nose, says Weiss. Scents may have sent him along a creek where he could have pushed aside rocks with his nose and played with fish or frogs – or his nose could have taken him to scents left behind by other wildlife, maybe finding bear scat and rolling in it to mask his smell so deer wouldn’t know he was approaching. Smells may have even evoked memories of his home in Oregon. “I think a day in the life of a wolf is pretty much an adventure,” says Weiss. “A search that’s broken up by exploring new things you come across.”

Since OR-93 was successful in finding prey and living a wolf existence deep into California, it shows that others could do the same, says Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education and outreach for the California department of fish and wildlife. “He’s like the first pioneer – but if one wolf can do it, it can be done. All of California is a historical wolf habitat and we like the things that belong here to be here.”

Traverso adds that given wolves’ stealth, it is possible other individuals are eking out an existence in parts of California where people would never expect to see them.

The territory OR-93 crossed is impressive, but it also highlights the habitat wolf conservationists hope will sustain the creatures. “It’s almost as if he had the map that we’ve drawn, the lands that remain suitable with habitat in California,” says Bethany Cotton, conservation director with Cascadia Wildlands. “Instinctively he knew where he could survive in the state and that is really impressive and hopeful.”

His death also highlights the need for wildlife overpasses and underpasses – safe ways to get around impenetrable ribbons of asphalt ripping through the state.

Wildlife travel according to ecosystems, not arbitrary political boundaries that humans have drawn on maps

Bethany Cotton

Whether wolves will thrive also depends on the policies of the state they roam in, Cotton says. The Trump administration removed federal protections for wolves in 2020, returning their management to individual states. “We’ve unfortunately had a really negative turn in Oregon and in Montana and Idaho and other states that are aggressively managing the species,” says Cotton. “And Idaho and Montana are allowing for hunting seasons and trapping seasons that could kill up to 90% of the population. So when you reduce those populations, they’re much less likely to go ahead and disperse and go into unoccupied habitats further away.”

The situation is a strong argument for why wildlife shouldn’t be managed state by state because those borders are invisible to the wildlife, she says. “Wildlife travel according to ecosystems, not arbitrary political boundaries that humans have drawn on maps.”

The epic journeys of individual animals like OR-93 help humans understand wolves better, Cotton says. “We can recognize on a human scale how far he traveled looking for a partner and looking for a place to call home. It really does help us recognize that they just aren’t too different from us: these are animals looking for a good place to live and food to eat and families and we just need to let them be.”