Emma Marris’s Outside story on OR4, the first male wolf to start a pack in Oregon since the 1940s, is a biography of a 21st-century predator told largely through the eyes of Russ Morgan, the field biologist who’d tracked him for more than six years. Marris weaves together uneasy questions about the scientist and his subject: What does preservation mean when, in order to survive, wildlife can’t transgress human definitions of acceptable behavior? What happens to the subjects we observe when we transpose surveillance technology from the human realm into the animal realm? Whose landscape is it, anyway?
The bureaucracy of wildlife management is part oxymoron, part paradox. The tensions are apparent from the moment that Morgan, the stoic biologist, places the first tracking collar around the neck of a tranquilized OR4.
Six months after their first meeting, on February 12, 2010, the black male got a collar and a name. Morgan used the signal from OR2 to track the family by helicopter. When he found the wolves, he had to try and pick the alpha male out of a half-dozen adult-sized wolves coursing through the rocky defiles of Road Canyon in lower Grouse Creek, just a few miles from the elk site. It was easy enough to spot OR2, and she had a companion running beside her, keeping close. Morgan figured he’d found his alpha.
Wolves are so fast — they can do bursts of 38 miles per hour, ten faster than Usain Bolt — that Morgan’s helicopter pilot struggled to keep up, while Morgan, leaning out the door, tried desperately to get a clear shot at the alpha’s rump. Suddenly, the big black wolf tripped over brush and rolled in a somersault. When he righted himself, he sat down and started barking and howling at the chopper, inadvertently concealing his backside.
“When he flipped over, I could see the rotor wash flattening his hair,” Morgan says. “He was frustrated. He gets pretty frustrated when he is being chased.” Finally, the wolf stood and Morgan got a shot off. Darted, the animal slowed, sat, and then went to sleep in the snow. The terrain was too steep to land, so the pilot dipped into the ravine, where Morgan stepped out with his kit. The helicopter took off, and Morgan shared a moment with the unconscious alpha. As he weighed him — 115 pounds, the largest wolf ever recorded in Oregon — took blood samples, and affixed tags and a collar, the black wolf officially became OR4, a wild animal with a name. A wild animal with his DNA on file.
OR2 wasn’t happy about any of it. She stood a couple hundred yards away while Morgan worked, howling continuously.