PHOENIX -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an emergency permit Thursday allowing researchers to capture and conduct DNA testing on a creature seen near the Grand Canyon that resembles a gray wolf.
Gray wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which ordinarily prohibits the capture of individual animals in the wild without a special permit that is accompanied by 30-day review period.
A notice published in the the Federal Register called the move “essential for its safety” and said the creature would be released back into the general area where it is captured.
“This was a situation where we said, ‘We need to move promptly on this,’” said Jeff Humphrey, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Arizona.
Humphrey pointed to the beginning of deer season in northern Arizona as one of the factors that forced the agency’s hand.
The animal, whose species hasn’t yet been confirmed, 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. The encounter happened near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Fish and Wildlife officials attempted to identify the animal based on a tracking collar it was wearing, but the signal was too weak, Humphrey said.
Humphrey said 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.
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“They should be able to determine just from the collar whether it’s a gray wolf,” he said.
If it is a gray wolf, it would be the first of its kind in that portion of Arizona in more than 50 years.
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 that the southern reach of the gray wolf’s current territory is the upper Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and Idaho. If the creature is a gray wolf, it has almost certainly traveled at least 700 miles.
However, Stone said 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, said that if the animal in question is a gray wolf, then the most important thing officials can do is raise awareness about its presence.
“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.”