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PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - An Oregon gray wolf famous for roaming in and out of California in search of a mate sired at least two pups, playing his part in the first known wolf breeding in the Cascade Mountain Range within Oregon since the 1940s, officials said on Wednesday.
OR-7, a wolf so named as he was the seventh of his species ever collared in Oregon with a tracking device, made headlines in December 2011 when he turned up in northern California, becoming the first wild specimen confirmed in the Golden state in 87 years.
Since March 2013, OR-7 has spent most of his time in the Cascade Range of southwestern Oregon, but was believed to have returned to California twice earlier this year.
Last month, Oregon wildlife officials said they believed the gray wolf may have found a mate, and on Wednesday they said biologists confirmed the pair produced offspring in the Cascade Range, with two pups spotted on camera in a den.
John Stephenson, wolf biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that since April, OR-7 has been traveling to find food and returning to the den.
"Each day he comes back to the spot, so he's been coming back to the den area on a daily basis for a month and half," Stephenson said. "He's definitely taking care of the pups."
Wolves in Oregon and elsewhere across the continental United States were hunted to extinction decades ago. But they were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s, and some later migrated to the state from Idaho.
Oregon's wolf population is now estimated to number more than 60 animals.
Officials say OR-7 likely has more pups than the two that were spotted, as gray wolves typically breed four to six puppies in a litter.
"This is very exciting news," Paul Henson, state supervisor of the Oregon office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. "It continues to illustrate that gray wolves are being recovered."
OR-7 was born into northeastern Oregon's Imnaha wolf pack in April 2009.
Wolves throughout Oregon are protected by the state Endangered Species Act.
In eastern Oregon, they lost their federally protected status in 2011 when Congress lifted Endangered Species Act safeguards for various wolf populations in several states, but protections have remained in place for any animals in the western two-thirds of Oregon.
By coincidence on Wednesday, the California Fish and Game Commission formally voted to list the gray wolf as an endangered species under that state's wildlife protection laws.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Madelein Thomas; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sandra Maler