SISTERS — The 5-inch-wide paw prints had potential.
"It's the right size," said John Stephenson, Oregon's wolf coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, gauging the track's length and width with a wooden ruler. "It's interesting."
But not convincing, he concluded after a little investigation. Stephenson's verdict: The prints were probably left by someone's pet dog.
And he was looking for something a little wilder.
Stephenson was on the hunt recently for signs that a wolf or a wolf hybrid, caught on camera by a driver on Santiam Pass this winter, still roamed the area.
"It's a long shot," he acknowledged.
It's been decades since wolves lived in the Central Cascades — the animals were killed off in Oregon in the 1940s. But as reintroduced wolves start making their way into the state from Idaho, wildlife managers are in the field to watch for them. The biologists search for wolf tracks, howl to see if anything howls back, and try to trap wolves and fit them with radio collars.
While most of the work is going on in northeastern Oregon, recent sightings of large canids in the Cascades have brought the search for wolves to Central Oregon.
In late January, passengers in two different cars saw a dark, wolflike animal cross Santiam Pass.
Stephenson later followed its tracks south for several miles. After that sighting, one person reported seeing a similar animal near Crater Lake, while another person reported seeing one about 140 miles away near Suttle Lake.
Sightings generate a tremendous amount of public interest, Stephenson said. And it's the job of wildlife managers like him to follow up and see whether the animal is still there.
But finding a wolf in a forest is not a simple proposition.
"Everybody seems to think it's really easy," Stephenson said. "But there's a lot of forest out there, and you're looking for one, maybe two animals."
The trick is to cover as much ground as possible, he said.
So, Stephenson and Jeremy Fields of the U.S. Forest Service revved up snowmobiles and navigated the maze of logging roads around Cache Mountain. Stephenson has been out in the area several times on foot and on skis looking for the wolf, but this time the Forest Service snowmobiles were providing the horsepower.
They started from a parking lot off of the McKenzie Highway, about seven miles west of Sisters, and followed well-tracked snowmobile paths.
Patches of bare ground poked through the snow in places, and Stephenson noted that with several more warmer days, the cover would be gone, and finding wolf tracks would be very difficult until next winter brings more snow.
But this day, the timing was perfect for tracking, he said. Fresh snow fell early in the week, followed by dry weather, providing a blank canvas for animal prints.
"This is probably the best opportunity to see if there's something still running around," he said.
With the machine kicking up snow behind him, Stephenson glanced left, glanced right, and scanned the snowbanks for tracks.
Stephenson stood up on the machine with his knee on the seat, checking out prints left by coyotes, squirrels, bobcats and people between trees and along the trail.
A few miles in, he stopped. A straight line of deep prints, spaced a couple of feet apart just like wolf tracks, crossed the trail. He cut the snowmobile's engine and waded through the snow to get a closer look.
But the tracks, at 2 inches wide, were about a third too small. And nearby, the prints of a snowshoe hare bounding across a clearing provided a likely backstory to explain the prints — a coyote chasing after a potential meal.
But he'd been excited for a minute there, Stephenson said before heading back to the snowmobile.
Using multiple maps stuffed in his pockets, he guided the tracking party across a route involving both well-used snowmobile trails and paths that led up, down and along hillsides. Plenty of animals had been out and about.
Stephenson pointed out bobcat prints, and followed a cougar's prints over snow-covered bushes and branches.
In their search Stephenson and Fields covered almost 34 miles through dense conifer forests and across sparse hills scorched by the G.W. Fire in 2007.
Animal prints followed logging roads and cut across trails, but the prints were small or the patterns weren't those of a wolf on the move.
The snow provided no evidence of the dark animal that ran across Santiam Pass, or the other reported animals.
"If there was a pair of animals out there, I think we would have seen something," Stephenson said.
The canid spotted on Santiam was probably a lone animal, he said, wandering through the area.
"If it's just by itself, it's likely we'll never see it again," Stephenson said.
Single wolves leave the pack they were born in and settle somewhere else, where they can have their own territory. The Central Cascades have lots of open habitat, Stephenson said, but not many other wolves for a single wolf to pair up with.
Sightings of lone wolves are interesting, said Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. But they aren't as significant as having a pair of wolves or a pack settling in an area, establishing a home range.
"One animal doesn't really make a population," Morgan said.
While the federal Fish and Wildlife Service decided recently to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies area, they are still considered federally endangered in Oregon west of Pendleton and Burns. Oregon's state wolf plan calls for the animals to be protected as endangered species until there are four breeding pairs east of U.S. Highway 97 for three consecutive years.
The agencies rely on solid data like tracking surveys to keep track of the number of animals and pairs, determine what habitat they're using and figure out where to focus the attention of wildlife agencies, Morgan said.
Finding no traces of wolves is valuable information as well, he said, and repeated surveys will just add to the amount of data biologists have.
"Trying to track a population, whether it's increasing or decreasing, you really have to start somewhere," Morgan said. "And that somewhere could be zero ... You just never know any of this unless you go out and look."
Tracking wolves is what led Stephenson and Morgan to an area in Northeast Oregon, and when biologists followed up on prints and howled there last summer, they heard pups answer back.
With no new signs of resident wolves in Central Oregon, Stephenson said, the focus now shifts back to Northeast Oregon and trying to radio collar wolves there.
While the Oregon biologists believe they have a breeding pair and might have a second one this spring, other wolf experts aren't convinced, Stephenson said. Trapping and tagging an animal, and taking blood samples, would prove their presence.
"It's unofficial," he said. "We'd like to make it official."
On the Net:
Idaho Wolf Population: http:www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wolf/ID—wolf—pla n—2008.pdf
Biologist searches for wolves in Oregon
SISTERS — The 5-inch-wide paw prints had potential.