A "wolf-like animal" was photographed in early October 2014 on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon.
The animal was wearing a collar "similar to those used in the northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery effort," reported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), supporting the belief that the animal is in fact a lone gray wolf from that population of 1,700. Other evidence to support the gray wolf notion: The animal has a bulkier build and more compact ears than its Mexican brethren and doesn't have the curved tail found in wolf-dog hybrids.
Because the mystery animal's collar is inactive, the only way to identify it is to analyze the DNA in its feces, which the FWS is doing now. The government is asking the public to treat the creature as a gray wolf, which is federally protected as an endangered species.
"Our first area of concern is the welfare of the animal," said Jeff Humphrey, public affairs specialist for the FWS's Southwest Region. That concern is valid considering wolves were largely exterminated from the lower 48 states back in the early 1900s.
A Long Way from Home
Gray wolves are known for traveling great distances in search of food and mates with records tracking them from the Northern Rockies as far south as Wyoming. At about two-and-a-half years, they head out in search of new territory, often going far from their home.
The recently photographed animal seems to be following in the tracks of fellow transient gray wolf, OR-7. That canid earned a documentary and even a Twitter feed after traveling more than 1,200 miles into California, becoming the state's first and only documented free-roaming wolf in nearly 90 years.
Jay Simpson, National Geographic Young Explorer and member of the Wolf OR-7 Expedition, noted his excitement that wolves seem to be returning to their natural habitats.
"It's really exciting in the sense that wolves continue to display remarkable abilities, "they continue to disperse to areas where they previously lived," he said.
The sighting comes on the heels of recent debates about the protected nature of wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Proposals have been made to remove all wolves except for the Mexican gray subspecies from the list, even in states where the animals do not have a known presence.
"There's an increasing number of people who have learned about the pivotal role wolves play in natural ecosystems, know they have been persecuted relentlessly over decades and cheer the return of wolves," Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity told ABC News. "And there are people who are fearful, concerned and opposed."
Groups intent on keeping gray wolves on the list are using the sighting as a rallying cry for preservation.
"In the early 1900s over 30 wolves on the North Kaibab, including Grand Canyon National Park, were killed by government hunters," said Kim Crumbo, conservation director for Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, in a press release. "The possibility that a determined wolf could make it to the Canyon region is cause for celebration, and we must insist that every effort be taken to protect this brave wanderer."
Identified as a Wolf
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Genetic tests of scat (feces) collected from a free-roaming canid north of Grand Canyon National Park on the North Kaibab National Forest have confirmed that the animal, first detected in early October, 2014, was a female Rocky Mountain gray wolf. This female gray wolf is not associated with the Mexican wolf population, a subspecies of gray wolves that occurs in Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40. The confirmation clarifies that this gray wolf is fully protected under the Endangered Species Act."
Attempts to capture the wolf in order to get blood samples and repair the GPS collar were unsuccessful. This effort has been suspended for now because of the weather and will only be retried next year to replace the transmitter.
The lab that did the initial scat analysis may be able to determine the wolf's individual identification by comparing its DNA profile with that of previously captured and sampled northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf females. This analysis will take several weeks to several months.
"The DNA results indicate this wolf traveled at least 450 miles from an area in the northern Rocky Mountains to northern Arizona," said Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director. "Wolves, particularly young wolves, can be quite nomadic dispersing great distances across the landscape. Such behavior is not unusual for juveniles as they travel to find food or another mate."
Protected Wolf Killed
A hunter shot the radio-collared animal on Sunday, December 21, 2014 in the Tushar Mountains outside of Beaver, Utah, according to a release from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The mountains are about 200 miles north of the Grand Canyon.
As soon as the hunter realized the animal he killed wasn't a coyote, he contacted the Division of Wildlife Resources. The DWR then contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who confirmed the animal was a three-year-old female northern gray wolf that was collared in January 2014 near Cody, Wyoming.
In 2012, Utah started a predator control program offering a $50 bounty to encourage killing coyotes. In addition, Utah spent $300,000 last year to lobby against wolves even though they don't exist in the state, and the DWR wants them stripped of any and all protection.
"This is a very sad day for wolf conservation and for Utah," Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Utah-based Western Wildlife Conservancy, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "All competent wildlife biologists already know that coyote hunting, including our state bounty program, is ineffective, and therefore a waste of money - and now we see that it is also a threat to other wildlife and to wolf recovery."