PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - A rare gray wolf has been spotted in the southwest Oregon Cascade Mountains, in a sign that recovering populations of the animal are spreading west more quickly than biologists had expected, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said on Wednesday.
Little is known about the wolf, whose blurry image was captured by a trail camera earlier this month, said John Stephenson, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. The camera was set up after state wildlife officials spotted footprints in the area.
“We believe it came from the larger wolf populations to the east, from Idaho and northeast Oregon, because those are the areas where we have established wolf populations,” Stephenson said. “But we don’t know.”
Though at least eight breeding pairs of wolves have been identified in eastern Oregon, wildlife officials had expected the species’ westward spread to proceed gradually, he said.
The recent wolf sighting was in an unpopulated forested area near the California border that had previously been frequented by the so-called Rogue Pack of wolves, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Rogue Pack, which has since moved farther north, is led by the wolf known as OR-7, so named because he was the seventh wolf ever collared in Oregon.
OR-7 made headlines in 2011 when he was the first wild animal of the species to turn up in northern California in 87 years. That wolf has since sired at least two pups with its mate.
“Wolves are spreading out in Oregon, and that’s a good indication of recovery,” Dennehy said.
But weather and other challenges have made surveying the wolf population challenging this year, she said, adding that state wildlife officials hope to count Oregon’s wolves as soon as conditions allow.
Wolves throughout Oregon are protected by the state Endangered Species Act.
They lost their federally protected status in eastern Oregon 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 the state.
Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech