Oct. 31–A collared, endangered gray wolf from the northern Rocky Mountains may be roaming in national forest land near Grand Canyon National Park, authorities said Thursday.
Environmentalists say it would be the first time a gray wolf has been seen there since the 1940s. If it is a gray wolf, it could have traveled up to a thousand miles.
But the animal may also be a wolf-dog hybrid, said authorities. Federal officials will try to capture it and collect its feces to analyze its DNA, possibly quite soon.
The “wolf-like creature” has been repeatedly observed and photographed since first spotted three weeks ago in the Kaibab National Forest, about 10 miles north of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, said Jeff Humphrey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. Its existence was first disclosed Thursday by environmental groups, including the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Based on photographs taken by the public and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, it doesn’t appear to be a Mexican wolf and its collar is similar to those used in the northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery effort, Humphrey said.
“Until determined otherwise, we’re assuming that it may be an endangered wolf,” said Sherry Barrett, the wildlife service’s Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, in an email Wednesday to a Center for Biological Diversity activist, Michael Robinson.
Until the most recent photos came in, “everyone was quite certain” the animal was a wolf hybrid, and the collars in the first pictures authorities saw looked more like dog collars, said Jim DeVos, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s assistant director for wildlife management. A wolf hybrid breeder lives about 30 miles north of the area in the town of Fredonia, and another person there keeps wolf hybrids, raising the possibility one may have escaped, he said.
Most of the early photos were cellphone-type photos. The most recent ones, taken by Game and Fish, offered more detailed looks at the collar that showed a brass plate that seemingly wouldn’t be on a dog collar, DeVos said. Those photos were taken by Todd Buck, Game and Fish’s Kaibab Plateau wildlife manager, he said.
“Until we get confirmation of the DNA, everything is uncertain, and everyone’s interpretation of the pictures is uncertain,” DeVos said.
He estimated the animal weighs 80 to 100 pounds.
A wildlife service spokeswoman, Charna Lefton, was quoted Thursday by the Reuters news service as saying the service is sending a team of specialists to the canyon area to try to capture it. DeVos said the service will set traps in the next 48 hours where the animal had been seen in hopes of capturing and radio-collaring it.
Authorities are also trying to find the animal’s scat to analyze DNA.
Photos of the animal look more like those of a northern timber wolf than a Mexican wolf, said Steve Spangle, a field supervisor for the wildlife service in Phoenix. He added that timber wolves can range from pure white to jet black, whereas Mexican wolves — such as those reintroduced in 1998 along the Arizona-New Mexico border — are typically brown and almost look like coyotes.
The National Park Service and Game and Fish flew over the area where the animal was photographed but couldn’t pick up radio signals from the collar, Spangle said.
“That means the animal is either not from the wolf recovery project or, more likely, the battery is just dead,” Spangle said.
If the animal is an endangered gray wolf, it could have traveled south from the Northern Rockies, where the population has grown since the feds reintroduced it in the 1990s in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. As of the end of 2013, the Northern Rockies wolf population contains at least 1,691 wolves, at least 320 packs, and at least 78 breeding pairs, the wildlife service said.
While Congress has removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, the animal remains protected if it appears in any other state — a point the wildlife service made Thursday in its news release confirming the discovery.
The protected status could be stripped by a pending proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove all wolves from the endangered species list except for the Mexican wolf that lives in Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico, the environmentalists said.
The animal’s existence near the Grand Canyon was disclosed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Wild Earth Guardians and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. They hailed the discovery as offering a great opportunity for wolf recovery there.
Authorities had kept the animal’s discovery under wraps to protect it from curiosity seekers, Spangle said.
The Center for Biological Diversity decided to publicize the discovery to prevent it from being shot before its existence was publicly known, conservation advocate Robinson said.
“We were very concerned that this animal, like many others, would have anonymity until its death,” said Robinson. “In recent years, there’s been a wolf shot in Missouri, there’s been wolves killed in Colorado and other places in the Midwest (including) North Dakota … and the public doesn’t know it’s a wolf until it’s been shot.”
Game and Fish’s DeVos, however, said it was irresponsible for the environmentalists to say the animal is a wolf until that’s been proved.
“A statement like that has no value till we wait a short time to capture and ID it,” he said. “Certainly the presence of a true gray wolf is important. That’s why we need to go capture it and take a tissue sample, and that’s why we have not made a big deal out of it.”
Robinson countered that for safety’s sake, the feds should hold off on capturing the animal now, and make it their top priority to collect its feces as soon as possible to analyze the DNA.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746. Follow Davis on Twitter @tonydavis987.