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Tracking Oregon wolves

Weather works against wildlife officials surveying for evidence

  By LACEY JARRELL, Herald and News 2/12/15

     Roads dusted with a light layer of snow are preferable, but in a pinch, wildlife biologist Tom Collom will settle for rain-slicked ruts.

   “In thicker gravel, wolves are not going to leave a print,” Collom said.

   Collom, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), has traveled several times in recent weeks to the east Wood River Valley area to investigate two alleged wolf sightings reported by the public.

   He declined to provide details about the animals’ locations.  

   Collom doesn’t believe the suspect wolf, or possibly suspect wolves, are the two wolves recently confirmed in the Keno Unit west of Klamath Falls. He said trail cameras caught photographic evidence of those wolves — one gray and one black — around the same time the Wood River Valley sightings — north of Klamath Falls — were submitted to the agency.

   “My personal opinion is that based on the timing, these appear to be separate from the Keno wolves,” Collom   said. “I think they’re unrelated.”

   Time sensitive

   Collom said time is working against him.

   The evidence he seeks is not easy to come by, and rain easily erodes the two most obvious visual cues: tracks and scat.

   A walking wolf has a stride of about 5 feet — a gait large enough to rule out coyotes and most dogs, Collom said. Wolf tracks can be up to 3.5 inches wide and 5 inches long, and because most wolves weigh well over 100 pounds, their tracks easily imprint in soft mud and snow.

   “They’re big,” Collom said. “But those tracks don’t last forever.”

   Wolf scat is similar to dog   droppings, but it’s bigger and less segmented. According to Collom, scat is usually more than 1.5 inches in diameter and tapered on one end; typically, wolf scat will have tangles of hair and bone fragments from prey.

   “If a wolf has just fed, you’ll see a lot of hair and it will be very, very dark. That’s just from the blood,” Collom said.

   Biologists hope for more than just visual confirmation, though. Ideally, when wolf scat is found, it’s fresh enough that intestinal cells can be scraped from the outermost layer. Collom explained that if scientists test scat contents, only the prey’s DNA will be present. If intestinal cells are tested, they can reveal what species deposited the scat, as well as the animal’s gender and genetic history. Many times, though, pine cones or elk and deer tracks are the only things deposited along forest roads.

   “It’s a needle in a haystack. You’re trying to find a fresh enough sample that was deposited on a spot that you just happen to encounter,” Collom said.

   Catch 22

   According to John Stephenson, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s not uncommon for wolves to roam hundreds of miles in search of new territory, food or a mate, making it hard to figure out where they’ll go next.

   “The southern Cascades are so dense, getting a visual on wolves can be really challenging,” Stephenson said.

   Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Conservation   Service released the February Oregon Basin Outlook Report, which stated that snowfall in the Klamath Basin is only 19 percent of normal.

   Stephenson called the lack of snow “unfortunate,” adding that the skimpy snowfall has made it harder for biologists to know exactly how many wolves are in Southern Oregon. In fact, it’s making it difficult for biologists to track the seven wolves already confirmed in the region.

   While traversing roads around the Wood River Valley, Collom occasionally stopped to try dialing in a variable frequency signal from the GPS collar strapped on OR-7, Oregon’s famed “wandering wolf.”

   In 2011, OR-7 was fitted with a GPS radio collar as a 2-year-old, before he left the Imnaha Pack in northeastern Oregon and traveled solo across the state and into California. He has since settled along the Klamath-Jackson County line.

   Stephenson said the collar was only expected to have a three-year lifespan.

   Now, sometimes four or five days pass between digital GPS downloads, according to Stephenson. He said part of that could be because OR-7 is in a remote area, but the 4-year-old collar’s signal strength is dropping nonetheless.

   According to downloaded GPS data, OR-7, and presumably the Rogue Pack — consisting of OR-7’s mate and the pair’s three pups — were in   Klamath County around the time the alleged Wood River Valley sightings occurred. But because signals from OR-7’s collar are becoming more sporadic, it’s impossible to say if the sightings were of OR-7 or members of his pack, Collom said.

   Although the GPS signal could fade soon, Collom explained that a less powerful variable frequency signal — picked up with an analog radio — could last much longer. Parked on a remote forest road near the Wood River Valley, Collom only heard scratchy static.  

   The lack of snow is a catch 22, according to Collom.

   “If we had periodic snowfall, obviously it’d be easier to find evidence of tracks. The problem though, is that if we were getting quite a bit of snowfall, we wouldn’t have access to most of the Cascades,” he said.  

    ljarrell@heraldandnews.com  ; @LMJatHandN
  H&N photo by Lacey Jarrell

   Tom Collom, a wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, can use a handheld radio to pick up transmitter signals from OR-7’s collar. If the famed gray wolf is nearby, the radio will emit a burst of three beeps.

  Submitted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

   Tracks from full grown wolves can be up to 5 inches long.

  H&N photo by Lacey Jarrell

   Before an apparent wolf sighting reported to the Klamath Falls Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office can be confirmed, wildlife biologist Tom Collom, must find scat or track evidence indicating the animal spotted was indeed a wolf.



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