By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - A gray wolf who signaled the comeback of his species in Oregon and California might be welcoming some new pups to his pack, wildlife biologists said on Wednesday.
The wolf, known as OR-7 because he was the seventh of his species ever collared in Oregon with a tracking device, is showing signs he may have more offspring after siring three pups last year, two of which officials know to have survived.
"We think they're denning again. Just the behavior we're seeing," said John Stephenson, wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Oregon. "OR-7 is returning to a same area repeatedly."
OR-7 made headlines in late 2011 when he turned up in northern California, becoming the first wild specimen confirmed in the Golden state for 87 years.
He was known to have been wandering between California and Oregon until last year when he met a mate and sired puppies.
Wildlife officials said trail camera photos show he could be mating with the same black female wolf.
"It's not surprising," Stephenson said. "Wolves do tend to attempt to reproduce each year. We expected them to den again."
Although the wolf's collar lost its GPS signal, it still produces a radio signal which can be tracked, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, adding that the state plans to try and re-collar OR-7.
Dennehy confirmed the wolves appear to be denning, but said officials will not know for certain until they can safely check later this summer.
The potential for new pups comes as the number of Oregon wolves rises. At the end of 2014, when officials last counted, there were 77 wolves in the state.
"So far the trend in Oregon is the population has been growing steadily and rapidly," Stephenson said.
Gray wolves, native to Oregon but wiped out in the state by an eradication campaign during the early 20th century, first returned in 2008.
The state's Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering easing state Endangered Species Act protections for the wolves in central and eastern Oregon, where most wolves live.
Federal law would continue to restrict hunting of the wolves in western Oregon.
Many of OR-7's fans will be waiting eagerly to know if he has in fact become a father again.
"OR-7 is a legend," Stephenson said.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)