Authorities investigating rare wolf sighting in central Oregon

Authorities investigating rare wolf sighting in central Oregon
File photo
BEND, Ore. (AP) — A wolf sighting in Central Oregon has raised questions about whether the wild animal is making a comeback or whether it was a pet that escaped.

Chris Mortimer was driving over Santiam Pass several weeks ago when a large, dark animal ran out in front of his car.

"A wolf ran right across the road," said Mortimer, who has worked as a naturalist. "She ran across the road, she stopped for maybe three to four seconds just to kind of look back. It was just kind of amazing."

The encounter lasted just long enough for Mortimer to grab his camera and snap a couple pictures before the animal ran into the woods.

Whether the animal was actually a wild gray wolf is being investigated by wildlife biologists.

"We don't know where the animal came from," said John Stephenson, wolf coordinator for Oregon with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Stephenson saw the pictures taken by Mortimer and followed large tracks for miles in the snow.

Biologists say it could be a wild wolf that made its way from Idaho, where wolf populations have thrived since they were introduced in 1995.

The Idaho wolves are expected to eventually cross the Snake River and settle in Oregon, but so far only a handful of arrivals have been confirmed and those are in the far northeastern reaches of the state.

The animal Mortimer saw on Santiam Pass could also be some kind of wolf hybrid — a wolf-coyote or wolf-dog mix that looks practically identical to a wolf but was raised domestically and either escaped or was released.

"That's a big concern," said Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Is the wolf actually a wild wolf or something somebody let out?"

Despite the distance, Stephenson said it was "very possible" that the animal is a wild wolf that came over from Idaho.

"This is the time of year that you get long-distance dispersers showing up in odd places," he said. "I think it's a better-than-even chance it's a wild wolf, but we don't know for sure."

But Corey Heath, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend who followed the tracks with Stephenson, leans toward the hybrid theory.

"It would be a little bit unlikely that an animal is going to get here from Idaho and not be seen between here and there," Heath said. "It's hard to say, but animals move long distances. At this point I would say it's possible — I don't know if it's likely."

Wolves were killed off in Oregon in the 1940s, but state wildlife managers and conservationists are watching for their return, saying the predators provide a necessary balance to the ecosystem.

Many ranchers, however, are concerned wolves will prey on their livestock.