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Exclusive: Tourists video Grand Canyon wolf

A pair of tourists from Virginia captured the female wolf roaming the North Rim last month — with their video camera. A cross-country road trip found the two with a rare sighting: a wolf trotting alongside their car as they left Grand Canyon National Park.

Sarah Nissen and Samantha Bray, of Charlottesville, Va., were leaving the canyon Oct. 8 and had just driven past a sign at the edge of the park when they saw the animal running along the side of the road, Bray said.

The canine paced their car as she slowed to watch, she said.

"All of a sudden, on the left, we saw an animal running along," she said. "It had something in its mouth — maybe a snake — that it was shaking and playing with."

"I slowed down and it crossed the road in front of the car."

Bray and Nissen took several photos and video of the canine. Tuesday, officials confirmed that their sighting was of a rare wolf.

"That would be her," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jeff Humphrey. 

The wolf was first spotted north of Grand Canyon National Park in the North Kaibab National Forest last month, and is the first gray wolf known to be in the area for over 70 years.

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During their three-day visit to the canyon, Nissen and Bray attended a nature presentation where another park visitor said they had seen a wolf, Bray said.

"They showed a ranger a photo, and he said, 'we don't have wolves here. That's a healthy coyote,'" she said. "I didn't see the photo, but we didn't really think it was a wolf until we heard about the sighting."

After TucsonSentinel.com's report Friday that officials had confirmed that the animal seen on the North Rim is indeed a gray wolf from the Rocky Mountains, Bray contacted us, sending photos and a short video clip.

"We saw a lot of animals on our trip," Bray said. "A fox in Death Valley, a lot of buffalo and bears at national parks. But this was definitely the most rare animal we saw."

As the pair watched from their car, the animal "cut in front like he didn't even know that the car was there."

The wolf then "trotted across a clearing to the treeline, where there were two large brown mounds — probably dead buffalo," Bray said.

Watching through binoculars, Bray and Nissen could "see the red of the meat" as the animal proceeded to eat, she said.

On Friday, officials confirmed that a gray wolf from the Northern Rockies is making a home on the North Rim. While biologists were unable to capture the wolf for testing, DNA analysis of the wolf's scat showed that she is a member of the endangered species.

Tuesday, Humphrey confirmed that Nissen and Bray's photos and video were of the same wolf.

The wolf's "epic journey through at least three western states fits with what scientific studies have shown, namely that wolves could once again roam widely and that the Grand Canyon is one of the best places left for them," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service issued an emergency permit earlier in November to allow researchers to capture and conduct DNA testing on the creature, which observers said resembled a gray wolf.

Officials with Fish and Wildlife, along with those from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and National Park Service, were unable to detect a radio signal from a collar worn by the animal.

Biologists "attempted to capture the animal to collect blood and replace the radio collar," said Humphrey on Friday. "Those efforts were unsuccessful and have been suspended due to cold weather, as our primary concern is the welfare of this animal."

Instead, the animal was confirmed to be a female Rocky Mountain gray wolf after testing was done on feces collected Nov. 2.

"Any future capture efforts will be for collar and transmitter replacement, and the wolf will be released on site," Humphrey said.

"The lab 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," he said in a news release. "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 for FWS.  "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."

From the FWS release:

Gray wolves have not been observed in the area for over 70 years when the last of the animals were removed through a decades-long predator eradication campaign.  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.

Humphrey said that the "confirmation clarifies that this gray wolf is fully protected under the Endangered Species Act."

Robinson, with the Tucson-based environmental group, said he is "very worried that if wolves are taken off the endangered species list she will be killed and wolf howls from the North Rim's pine forest will never again echo in the Grand Canyon."

FWS officials proposed removing gray wolves from the endangered species list last year, with the exception of the Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies found in small numbers in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

"Where wolves have already been taken off the endangered species list in the northern Rockies and upper Midwest, state-authorized hunting, trapping and snaring, along with federal aerial gunning, are driving wolf numbers downward," said a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

That group has recommended keeping the wolves on the list, and identified 359,000 square miles of additional habitat in the lower 48 states that they said could significantly boost the population of wolves.

"There's so much more room for wolves in the West if only we extend them a bit more tolerance," Robinson said. "The Grand Canyon wolf is a prime example of what wolves can do if only we let them."

It took nearly two months to announce that the canine spotted in Arizona is indeed a wolf.

The animal was photographed during the week of Oct. 5 by a turkey hunter who sent the photo to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Humphrey said earlier this month. The encounter happened near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

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Fish and Wildlife officials first attempted to identify the animal based on a tracking collar it was wearing, but the signal was too weak, Humphrey said.

Humphrey said earlier in November, before the testing, that the canine could be a gray wolf, a wolf-dog hybrid or a Mexican gray wolf, though he added that the last option was unlikely due to the appearance of its collar.

Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf that once roamed much of North America, were reintroduced to eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 1998. At last count, there were 83 Mexican gray wolves in the wild.

Susanne Stone, senior Northwest correspondent for Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation organization, said earlier this month that long journeys aren’t unprecedented for gray wolves.

“They’re known for being a widely dispersive species,” she said. “Young wolves can act a lot like teenagers: They like to leave the nest, fall in love, get in trouble.”

Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group, speaking before the animal's species was confirmed, that the most important thing officials can do is raise awareness about its presence if it is a gray wolf.

“When we have these wolves that travel great distances, they often get killed before anyone finds out,” Kerr said. “We’re hoping that this wolf gets an element of celebrity that might protect it.”

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courtesy Samantha Bray and Sarah Nissen

A rare gray wolf — a species not seen in the area for 70 years — was captured in photos and videos by a pair of tourists Oct. 8.