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Enviros: Gray wolf sighted near Grand Canyon

Officials work to confirm wolf in Northern Az

What appears to be a gray wolf was recently photographed roaming on Forest Service land near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in what would be the first wolf sighting at the park since the 1940s, the Center for Biological Diversity said Thursday.

The photos were taken by a park visitor who then shared them with park staff and conservation activists, according to the conservation group.

The animal, first spotted by a visitor to the area on Oct. 4, would be the first gray wolf in that part of the state in nearly 70 years, if officials can confirm its species.

The images appear to show a wolf wearing an inactive radio collar. The animal appeared larger in size than a typical Mexican wolf, and the collar does not match the type used by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track Mexican gray wolves, said agency spokesman Jeff Humphrey.

While the animal appears to be a western gray wolf that has yet to be confirmed, said Humphrey. The agency is attempting to collect scat from the animal for DNA testing so that they know exactly what they are dealing with, Humphrey said.

"It would be premature to say whether it is a gray wolf, a wolf hybrid or, least likely, a Mexican gray wolf," Humphrey said.

"That’s where our immediate course of action is, to ascertain what type of animal it is," Humphrey said.

Humphrey discounted a report by Reuters that Fish and Wildlife has plans to trap the animal.

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"Our primary concern is for the safety of the animal," he said. He repeated that they had no plans past trying to confirm if it was a gray wolf, and explained that because wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, permits would be needed to do anything with the animal — even taking blood samples.

If it is confirmed that the animal is a wolf of the western gray variety, it would most likely have traveled hundreds of miles south from the Northern Rocky Mountains, where they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. There are at least 1691 wolves in the Northern Rockies, mainly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Wolves in those states are no longer on the endangered species list. Gray wolves were classified as endangered in 1974.

The environmentalists at the Center for Biological Diversity, however, were not waiting for that confirmation. They said Thursday that the presence of the animal on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon points to the need for continued protection of the endangered wolf.

"I'm absolutely thrilled that a wolf managed to travel so far to reclaim the Grand Canyon as a home for wolves," Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate with the center, said in a news release. "This wolf's journey starkly highlights the fact that wolf recovery is still in its infancy and that these important and magnificent animals continue to need Endangered Species Act protections."

"What’s striking to us is that the wolf has remained in the area," Robinson said in an interview.

The center opposes the current plan by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“The latest proposal, which the agency scheduled to be finalized late this year, would eliminate protections for the Grand Canyon wolf and likely erase any chance it would be joined by a potential mate from the north,” the center said in a statement released Thursday.

But an official with the Arizona Game and Fish Department called it a stretch to say the animal is on the North Rim, saying only that it has been seen in and around the Kaibab National Forest.

“We’ve known that there’s been a wolf-like critter in the area for about three weeks,” said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Game and Fish Department. “Determining whether it is a wolf or a wolf hybrid is critical.”

“Based on photographs, it does not appear to be a Mexican wolf and its collar is similar to those used in the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery effort,” Fish and Wildlife officials said in a statement.

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DeVos said trapping the animal and removing its collar are priorities. He also said this animal appears less cautious around people than a typical wolf, and noted that there is at least one known wolf-dog breeder in the area.

In the meantime, federal and state officials said they are working to alert the public that there may be a wolf in the area.

“Our primary concern is for the welfare of that animal,” Humphrey said.

“There’s a deer hunt that is starting in the area, and Game and Fish is doing their noble best to get the word out to people to treat it as a fully endangered animal,” Humphrey said.

Cronkite News reporter Laurie Liles contributed to this report.

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courtesy the Center for Biological Diversity

State and federal officials are trying to determine if this animal, which has been spotted several times north of the Grand Canyon this month, is an endangered gray wolf. The species has not been seen there since the 1940s.