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The Wolf That Roamed to Southern California

Of course, he was looking for love. Aren’t we all? And he seemed to be looking for it in all the right places—namely, the southern coastal counties of California, where he was, literally, the lone wolf, with seemingly no male competitors at all. In fact, OR-93 (2019-2021) was the first gray wolf to appear in the region for two or three hundred years. The absence of rivals was good news for him, but the rest of the equation was hopeless, because there were apparently no female counterparts for him to encounter there, either—no one to meet and mate with. To be honest, OR-93’s journey from his birthplace, in Oregon, to California was reproductively doomed from the start. He could have crossed party lines with a wayward labradoodle or a lusty mountain coyote, but he showed no inclination in that direction. Still, it was thrilling just that he had made the trip, signifying, or at least suggesting, the return of the species to an area where it had once thrived.

Some people hate wolves. They consider them merciless and sneaky. Ranchers rage at them for their predation of lambs and calves. Gray wolves once lived just about everywhere in this country, including up and down the West Coast. (Another species, red wolves, flourished only in the Southeast.) The hunting and trapping and poisoning of wolves peaked in the early nineteen-hundreds, and effectively eliminated them from the continental United States, except for a few stragglers in Minnesota. In 1974, red and gray wolves were added to the list of animals that are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, because there were so few left. A handful of gray wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho, reintroduced to the region from Canada, did go forth and multiply, and in time their descendants began wandering westward, establishing several packs in Washington State and in Oregon and, in recent years, a few in the northern counties of California: the Lassen, Whaleback, and Beckwourth packs. (Another pack did exist in California, but it mysteriously and abruptly vanished, suggesting that hunters may have killed those animals, which is illegal in the state.) In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves from the endangered-species list, because their population was considered “stable,” although they are now found in less than fifteen per cent of the range they used to occupy.

OR-93, a member of Oregon’s White River pack, was born in April, 2019, near Mt. Hood, about an hour-and-a-half drive southeast of Portland. Wolves can be coarsely built, big-boned and thick-necked, but OR-93 was lean and lithe. He had the long legs of a dancer, a large black nose, and a resting smiley face. In June, 2020, he was briefly detained by a biologist from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and fitted with a purple radio collar, so his movements from then on were tracked as closely as a teen-ager’s using Life360. (He was also then given the name OR-93, indicating that he was from Oregon and was the ninety-third wolf to be tagged there.) When he reached adolescence—between a year and half and two and a half years, in a wolf’s life—he set off on his own, as young males are wont to do, to find a mate. On January 30th of this year, his collar signalled that he had entered California for the first time.

After the initial border crossing, he turned back. Then a few days later, he headed to California again. He wove through territory belonging to the Lassen pack—a dangerous passage for a young male on the make—and then, to the great surprise of Oregon State wildlife officials who were tracking him, he continued south and toward the coast, the first wolf to do so since Napoleon Bonaparte was born. We can’t know if he was driven by an unusually keen sense of adventure; we do know that he was still on the hunt for a mate, and apparently thought he would have better luck in California. He roamed through the snow of Modoc County, the ragged edges of the Yosemite Valley, the almond groves of Fresno County, and, finally, into beachy, exurban Ventura County. He had walked nine hundred and thirty-five miles through the state, crossing sixteen counties and three major highways; he was not only intrepid in having come so far south but smart enough to navigate hostile territory, particularly roadways. He kept such a low profile that almost no one reported seeing him on his odyssey; besides a September sighting, the closest anyone got to spotting him occurred in August, on months-old camera footage from a property to the east of Los Padres National Forest. Only the pinging of his collar gave him away.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to see him? A wolf, roaming free in territory where no one alive had ever seen one? Many people would surely have celebrated, but others would have been gunning for him, which is why wildlife officials didn’t broadcast his whereabouts—for fear that he would be targeted. That’s also why, when a truck driver found OR-93’s body near I-5, on November 10th, some people might have suspected murder. (A necropsy confirmed that he had met the usual end for wandering wildlife: he had been hit by a vehicle.) He died some eighty miles from Los Angeles, and only a short trot from the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, a two-hundred-and-forty-thousand-acre refuge where he could have lived out his days as a bachelor in peace. His body’s discovery came just two days before a federal court in California heard arguments in a case fighting to have gray wolves added back to the endangered-species list.

He never had a name other than OR-93, although Amaroq Weiss, the senior wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, thought that Ulysses would have suited him. “It would have been a good name except for one thing,” Weiss said. “Ulysses managed to come back from his journey.”

Afterword is an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. If you’d like to propose a subject for an Afterword piece, write to us at afterword@newyorker.com.


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