(Reuters) - A gray wolf was recently photographed on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona in what would be the first wolf sighting in the national park since the last one was killed there in the 1940s, conservation groups said on Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sending a team to try to capture the animal in question in order to verify the sighting, though federal biologists are assuming that it is a wolf unless otherwise determined, a spokeswoman said.
The National Park Service also is looking into the authenticity of the photos in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said.
Several photos of the animal were taken over the weekend by a Grand Canyon park visitor who shared them with conservation activists and park staff, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which made the findings public.
Officials for the center and Fish and Wildlife said the animal appeared to be wearing an inactive radio collar.
A note accompanying images viewed by Reuters said two wolf biologists and "an experienced wolf observer" who reviewed the photos concluded they "appear to depict a radio-collared northern Rocky mountain gray wolf."
Any wolf roaming the Grand Canyon, in north-central Arizona, would be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If confirmed to be a western gray wolf, it would presumably have ventured hundreds of miles (km) south from the Northern Rockies, where the animals were reintroduced in the 1990s from Canada and are now estimated to number nearly 1,700 in that region.
A separate smaller population, from a subspecies called the Mexican gray wolf, inhabits southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, hundreds of miles (km) in the opposite direction. But the animal pictured on the canyon's north rim appeared larger in size than a typical Mexican wolf, experts said.
Center for Biological Diversity executive Noah Greenwald said his group publicized the sighting to prevent the animal from being mistaken for a coyote and possibly shot as a result.
It comes as the Obama administration is weighing a proposal to lift Endangered Species Act protections for all wolves but the Mexican gray subspecies, even in states where wolves are not currently known to have established a presence.
Greenwald said the Grand Canyon wolf sighting helps show such a move would be premature.
"It really highlights the fact that wolves are still recovering and occupy just a fraction of their historic range," he said.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman, Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler