(Reuters) - A canine spotted in and around the north rim of the Grand Canyon has been confirmed to be the first western gray wolf at the national park in Arizona since the last one was killed there in the 1940s, U.S. wildlife managers said on Friday.
Last month a park visitor captured photographs of the animal wearing what was believed to be a radio collar. Wildlife advocates suspected it was a wolf that wandered south from the Northern Rockies.
Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said testing of scat from the animal revealed it was a Rocky Mountain gray wolf like the ones that have established a foothold in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming after being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s.
“The DNA results indicate this wolf traveled at least 450 miles from an area in the northern Rocky Mountains to northern Arizona,” Tuggle said in a statement, adding that it was a female.
A wolf trekking hundreds of miles across rugged mountains is not unheard of. An Oregon gray wolf gained fame in recent years roaming in and out of California in search of a mate, and has sired at least two pups in the first known wolf breeding in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon since the 1940s.
Testing ruled out that the animal sighted at the Grand Canyon was a wolf-dog hybrid or a subspecies known as the Mexican gray wolf. That imperiled creature inhabits southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from the Grand Canyon, and is smaller and more coyote-like in appearance than the western gray wolf.
Federal wildlife officials were alerted to the possible wolf sighting by conservation groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which feared the animal might be shot when it wandered from the park, where hunting is prohibited, into an adjacent national forest.
Wolves in Arizona are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, meaning it is illegal to harm or kill them, but hunters mistaking them for coyotes have shot and killed similarly protected wolves found in Colorado and Utah.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has received a special permit to capture the Grand Canyon wolf for testing and to possibly glean data from the inactive radio collar.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham