The Oregon-born wolf known as OR93 near Yosemite, California, in February 2021. The wolf thrilled biologists as it journeyed far south into California, but was found dead after apparently being struck by a vehicle. (Courtesy of Austin James Jr., Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs)
Wildlife officials say a far-ranging gray wolf, the first to tromp across Southern California in more than a hundred years, was found dead near a roadway a little more than an hour's drive north of downtown Los Angeles.
It appeared to have been struck by a vehicle.
The male wolf, named OR93 when it was outfitted with a GPS collar by wildlife officials in its home state of Oregon, left its pack near Mount Hood two years ago. It gained followers and fans in the wildlife community as it traveled south, crossing interstates and highways to parts of California that hadn't seen a wolf since 1922.
Researchers and wildlife protectors have expressed grief after the death of OR93. Senior Wolf Advocate Amaroq Weiss of The Center for Biological Diversity paid close attention to the wolf's movements, and for her, its journey shows that "wolves are amazing and intrepid and inspiring."
"He was simply looking for a mate and his search took him to [a] place we did not expect wolves to get to for decades," she shared through email.
California, like much of the U.S., is wolf habitat. Pre-colonization, large predators covered much of the continent, before European colonizers hunted, trapped and killed them to near extinction. The fragmented populations that survived are now being suffocated, in many areas, by an ever-growing web of roadways.
The Department of Transportation estimates that 365 million animals are killed on U.S. roads every year, more than the total number of people in the country. Recovering populations of large carnivores like wolves, which are trying to repopulate areas, are at particular risk.
Young male gray wolves are known to travel far distances after leaving their packs. The wanderlust has a biological purpose.
By traveling far from its family, a wolf is more likely to find a mate with a different genetic makeup. Inbreeding is believed to have caused a population crash of gray wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Efforts to take grizzly bears off the endangered species list in the Northern Rockies have been stymied because of legal challenges based, in part, on "species connectivity."
In Southern California, wildlife officials have found abnormalities in an inbreeding population of mountain lions, hemmed in by the region's busy roadways.
Early next year, the state will break ground on an overpass spanning six lanes of the 101 freeway designed to help the large cats and other wildlife branch out, after a multiyear push by wildlife advocates. Similar efforts are underway around the country, and the larger effort to give wildlife safe passage just got a big boost in President Biden's recently passed infrastructure bill.
It designates $350 million over the next five years for state, local and tribal governments to construct bridges or underpasses for wildlife. Another $400 million will go toward the removal of obstructions like dams, which stifle fish and invertebrate populations.
"The construction of wildlife crossings will reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and is a key conservation strategy to help wildlife survive impacts from climate change and development," said Mike Leahy, director of wildlife, hunting, and fishing policy at the National Wildlife Federation.
More than a million species are at risk of extinction globally, many within decades, because of human activities. World leaders are gathering next year to approve a plan for slowing the biodiversity crisis. Aggressive action is needed to slow the collapse of nature, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
"Do we want to avoid another COVID-19?" she told NPR last year. "We either conserve and protect nature, biodiversity, or it will make us suffer as we do now."
This post includes reporting from KQED's Katrin Snow.