Is it a wild wolf? A sighting on the Santiam Pass raised interest. photo by Chris Mortimer
Is it a wild wolf? A sighting on the Santiam Pass raised interest. photo by Chris Mortimer
Chris Mortimer, a naturalist from California, was driving over the Santiam Pass on Wednesday, January 28, when he was shocked to see a very large, wolf-like animal dash across the road in front of him.

"Wolf!" he shouted, and pulled over to the side of the highway.

With only a small, point-and-shoot camera at his disposal, he did the best he could to document what may turn out to be the first wild wolf seen in these parts in over 100 years.

"I think it's too far from Idaho to be part of those packs," said John Stephenson, local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife specialist, after he and Corey Heath, Bend Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, tracked the animal over five miles from where Mortimer first observed it. "I couldn't see any sign of it getting into someone's pickup, or heading for a house. Could be the real thing, but we just don't know."

Russ Morgan, ODFW wildlife biologist stationed in LaGrande, who has had experience with wolves and is the state's wolf coordinator, agreed that is definitely wolf-like, and contacted Stephenson and Heath asking for possible confirmation.

According to most wolf experts who have viewed Mortimer's photos, the opinion is that the animal sighted is in excellent condition, showing "a good coat and fat on the belly," a trait rarely seen in a "wild wolf." This leaves some speculation that it may have been released or strayed after escaping from from captivity.

Then there's the "wolfdog" theory. Wolfdogs, a cross-breed of domestic dog and wolf, have become popular in some circles. They possess a moderate percentage of wolf, and but tend to be more like a dog than a wolf in most situations. However, wolfdog "ownership" (which is legal in Oregon) is not to be taken lightly, as wolfdog crosses have some characteristics that can make them challenging as pets.

Even the terms used to refer to wolfdogs can be confusing; in the past the term wolf hybrid was commonly used. The term "hybrid" refers to a cross of different species; however, dogs have been reclassified as Canis lupus familiaris, a sub species of wolves (Canis lupus).

After reviewing the experience and evidence of his encounter, Mortimer said, "Anyway, this was so cool. I still barely believe it. I have to keep looking at the photo so I don't doubt my vision."

If anyone observes an animal with wolf-like characteristics it would be helpful in clearing up this wildlife mystery if they would contact the Bend ODFW office at 388-6363.