The story of the wolf known as OR-7 is one of persistently long odds. Born to the first pack in Oregon in at least 60 years, OR-7 made a journey of over 1,000 miles from far northeastern Oregon across Interstate 5 and the Cascade Mountains to southwestern Oregon, eventually crossing the border with California in 2011, becoming the first wolf in the state in more than 80 years.
Now after surviving as a bachelor for more than three years in both California and Oregon, OR-7 has found a mate and produced pups. Incredibly, the news, along with a very cute photo of the pups, came out on the very day that the California Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to protect wolves against the advice of the state's own Department of Fish and Wildlife, which had argued against state protections because wolves had not yet set up shop in the Golden State.
There can be no question now that wolves will repopulate California, as well as western Oregon, where they have been absent for decades. And the Commission's vote to protect wolves represents a tremendous victory for wolf recovery.
As of now, the origin of the female wolf that likely made her own incredible journey is unknown, but Oregon state officials, in addition to observing two pups (more are suspected), have collected scat and should be able to trace her origin using DNA.
As heroic as it is that these two wolves travelled so far and then somehow managed to find each other and mate, it also very clearly highlights the need for continued protection of wolves in parts of the country where they have not yet returned, but could if we only let them.
OR-7 and his new lady friend are currently protected in both western Oregon and California under the federal Endangered Species Act, but if the Obama administration has its way, this won't be true for long. In June of 2013, the administration proposed to remove endangered species protections everywhere but in the Southwest, where the Mexican wolf struggles to survive. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.
Without the Endangered Species Act, the story of OR-7 would never have happened. Wolves would not have been reintroduced to Idaho, to grow in numbers, then to migrate into Oregon's Wallowa Mountains and finally for OR-7 to make his historic journey.
And with removal of protections such journeys may come to an end. Indeed, since protections were lifted in the northern Rocky Mountains, the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have been waging a relentless war against wolves that has resulted in the killing of over 1,700 wolves since 2011 and the beginnings of population declines. Hunting and trapping of wolves are similarly leading to declines in the Midwest, where protections have also been lifted.
Scientists estimate as many as 2 million wolves once occurred across most of the U.S. Today, after herculean recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act, they number fewer than 5,500 and remain absent from places like the southern Rockies in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Adirondacks in the Northeast -- all places scientists tell us have sufficient habitat to support wolves. With help, wolves could return to these areas and others, but they need the continued protection of the Endangered Species Act.
For now though, we'll bask in the sweet news that a wolf pack has established and had pups in a totally new area and that the great state of California is welcoming them back.