PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - An Oregon gray wolf that became famous for trekking into California and back has become a father of at least two pups, playing his part in the first known wolf breeding pair in the Oregon Cascade Mountain Range since the 1940s, officials said on Wednesday.
OR-7, an animal so named because he was the seventh wolf collared with a tracking device in 2011, became well known when he traipsed into California in December 2011, making him the first known wild wolf in the state since 1924.
Other uncollared wolves may have made it to California, but OR-7's GPS collar, which transmits his location data several times a day, enabled wildlife managers to track him closely and made him a kind of wildlife celebrity.
Since March 2013, OR-7 has spent most of his time in the Cascade Range of southwestern Oregon. 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 and that two pups were spotted.
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 where the pups are living.
"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."
This is the first time gray wolves have been known to breed in the Oregon Cascades since the mid 1940s.
Wolves in Oregon were hunted to extinction decades ago, but they later migrated to the state from Idaho and since 1995 the wolf population in Oregon has increased from zero to over 60.
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 northeast 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.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sandra Maler