STEVENSVILLE — OR-18 made history of sorts before it took a bullet on the last day of May in the Sapphire Mountains.
The 2-year-old male gray wolf was the first wolf wearing a GPS collar to disperse from its Oregon home into Montana.
Born into the Snake River pack in northeast Oregon, in March 2013 the subadult was the 18th wolf captured and fitted with a collar by Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologists.
The young wolf picked up and left its pack earlier this year, probably to search out a new home and find a mate. It traveled through Idaho before making its way over the divide and into the Big Hole Valley in May.
“It had only been in Montana a little while,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Liz Bradley. “It kept heading north, where it crossed into Rock Creek and then into the North Sapphires.”
“We were keeping our eye on it to see where it would go,” she said. “It hadn’t been in the Bitterroot even a week and a half.”
On Saturday, May 31, OR-18 was illegally shot from a road between Sawmill and Ambrose saddles in upper Haacke Creek in the Burnt Fork area of the Bitterroot Valley, east of Stevensville.
Bradley said the wolf died sometime between 6 and 9 p.m. that evening. GPS collars send out a mortality signal if the collar stays in the same place for a period of time.
“We knew to go look for it,” Bradley said. “Most of our wolves don’t wear GPS collars. The VHF collars we use require us to go find them. I fly once a month to find them.”
GPS collars are more expensive and have been used only in Montana for specific research projects.
Bradley said OR-18 isn’t the first wolf that biologists have seen depart on a long-distance journey.
“We’ve documented a handful of these kinds of long-distance treks,” Bradley said. “Most don’t survive. They end up crossing more roads and traveling through other packs’ territories where they could be killed if discovered. The landscape is unfamiliar to them.”
“The wolves that travel long distances have less chance of making it than those that disperse closer to their home ranges,” she said.
All five Oregon wolves fitted with collars that previously dispersed into Idaho died.
The fact there aren’t many as wolves yet in Oregon may have been the driving factor for OR-18’s decision to head east.
“It’s not unusual to move toward the center of activity,” Bradley said. “The chances of a wolf finding a mate are much better if it comes to Montana instead of going to California.”
OR-18 was the first Oregon wolf that Montana officials can say for sure has made its way toMontana.
“It’s certainly possible that others that aren’t collared have come this way,” Bradley said. “It probably goes on far more than we know about.”
Montana biologists have tracked a wolf with a GPS collar that traveled more than 2,000 miles on a circuitous route from this state to Colorado.
“It ended up dying,” Bradley said. “We never found out what killed it.”
In Oregon, a collared wolf tagged OR-7 traveled south from the northeastern part of the state and into California. It recently found a mate in southwest Oregon. The new pack is the first in the southwestern end of the Cascade Mountains since the 1940s.
Oregon’s first documented wolf in recent history moved in from Idaho in 2008. At the end of 2013, the state had a known population of 64 wolves.
The reward for information leading to the arrest of the poacher who killed OR-18 grew larger Friday.
A private donation from Wolves of the Rockies bumped the reward amount from the original offering of up to $1,000 from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s TIP-MONT program to up to $3,500 for information that leads to a conviction in the case. Tipsters can remain anonymous and should call 1-800-847-6668.