The American West just became a little wilder.
On Nov. 21, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that the animal spotted near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon last month is a gray wolf. After testing scat samples, the Service believes it is a lone female that originated in the northern Rockies.
“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 Region 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.”
Fish and Wildlife initially planned to capture the wolf and confirm its identity through a blood test, expediting a federally required permit for the project. Although a blood test no longer appears necessary, federal managers have not ruled out conducting a field capture to replace the wolf’s inoperative radio collar.
Conservationists are concerned that a risky late-season field capture threatens the wolf’s safety and may result in her injury or death. Government agencies have killed 19 critically endangered Mexican wolves in botched live-capture operations, according to conservation groups.
“We are overjoyed that she made it through hundreds of miles of politically hostile territory to rediscover an important part of her historic range,” said Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “This is a bellwether event for wolf recovery in the United States.”
Rumors about the wolf began circulating in early October after members of the public spotted her repeatedly around the Kaibab Plateau near Grand Canyon National Park. News broke about her existence on October 30. Federal and state wildlife managers quickly confirmed the wolf’s presence, stating they were exercising precaution and treating her as fully protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
However, the Obama Administration is considering delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, a decision expected by the end of the year.
If that happens, the Grand Canyon wolf would become vulnerable, said Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona.
“Right now, she is protected by federal law, but if the gray wolf is delisted my fear is that someone could shoot her,” he said. “Also there is concern that she may be mistaken for a non-game coyote and be shot or injured in a trap.”
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.