A gray wolf was recently spotted at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Thursday, the first wolf sighting in the national park in decades, making conservationists everywhere hopeful that it's a sign the species is recovering.
While officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at first described the animal as "wolf-like," possibly either a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid, it has since been confirmed as a gray wolf.
Aside from technicalities, the agency's primary concern "is the welfare of this animal," FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey told The Associated Press (AP).
The lone wolf could possibly belong to a population of fewer than 100 endangered Mexican gray wolves lives in portions of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. However, its full body and more rounded ears indicate that it belongs to a group 1,700 strong inhabiting the Northern Rockies, according to Humphrey.
And as seen in photos from Kaibab National Forest north of Grand Canyon National Park, the wild animal wears a collar similar to those used in a wolf recovery effort in the Northern Rockies.
Wolves, including the gray wolf, were largely hunted to near extinction over the last century in the lower 48 states, except in the western Great Lakes area. They haven't been seen roaming around the Grand Canyon region since the 1940s, making this sighting an extraordinary one.
With the ability to thrive in a number of diverse habitats, from the tundra to woodlands, forests, grasslands and deserts, the National Wildlife Federation says, it's no wonder gray wolves once spanned over two-thirds of the United States.
It may seem logical that protecting wolves should be a priority given their scarce numbers, but lately there's been much controversy over wolf populations and the fate of these endangered animals. The FWS in recent years has lifted protections for the animals in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies, only to have them reinstated after backlash from wildlife advocates, the AP reports.
Just earlier this month, the debate was once again ignited with the death of a Mexican gray wolf found in Arizona's Blue Range recovery area. And with only approximately 83 of these wolves prowling the New Mexico and Arizona wilderness, the FWS and others are especially concerned. Not to mention threats that continued shootings and trappings pose to these animals.
And while the presence of this new gray wolf around the Grand Canyon area offers a glimmer of hope for the species, environmentalists remain concerned about the proposal to remove them from the endangered species list.
"There's an increasing number of people who have learned about the pivotal role wolves play in natural ecosystems, know they have been persecuted relentlessly over decades and cheer the return of wolves," Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) told the AP. "And there are people who are fearful, concerned and opposed." For example, farmers who worry that wolves will attack their livestock.
For now, that any wolf roaming the Grand Canyon would be protected under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). But this unidentified gray wolf may soon have to watch out considering the Obama Administration may lift such ESA protections for all wolves - excluding the Mexican gray subspecies.
CBD executive Noah Greenwald told Reuters that the recent sighting shows such a move would be jumping the gun, and be costly for this wolf, and all wolves for that matter.
"It highlights ... that wolves are still recovering and occupy just a fraction of their historic range," he said.
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