Lone Gray Wolf May Be Roaming Grand Canyon

The wolf could be the first of its species to roam Arizona in 70 years.

A wayward gray wolf has been spotted several times this month around the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, according to conservationists.

The wolf, which is wearing an inactive radio collar, could be the first of its species to roam Arizona in 70 years; gray wolves were exterminated from the state in the 1940s.

Federal authorities are investigating the sightings. Representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said they are trying to confirm whether the animal is actually a wolf or a "wolf-dog hybrid" by collecting a feces sample. [In Photos: The Fight Over Gray Wolves' Endangered Status]

The animal doesn't appear to be a hybrid, at least in photos taken by observers, but the possibility can't be ruled out until a genetic test is conducted, said Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group based in Tucson.

"Until more is known about this animal, visitors to the area are cautioned that this may be a wolf from the northern Rocky Mountain population and fully protected under the Endangered Species Act," FWS representatives said in a statement.

If the wolf did indeed come from the northern Rocky Mountain population, it would have traveled across hundreds of miles to get to northern Arizona; the southernmost breeding population of gray wolves in the Rockies lives just south of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Robinson said.

Gray wolves once lived across most of the continental United States, but the predators were aggressively hunted and sometimes killed for bounties through the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, the only places gray wolves could be found below the Canadian border were a sliver of land in northern Minnesota and Michigan's Isle Royale.

The species was then protected under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s. Conservation efforts and reintroduction programs helped gray wolves return to parts of their range. There are now more than 5,000 gray wolves in the continental United States, primarily in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as eastern Oregon and Washington.

A small population of Mexican wolves (a subspecies of gray wolves) has also been reintroduced to parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The gray wolf spotted in Grand Canyon National Park does not appear to be a Mexican wolf, because its body is bulkier and its ears are more compact than those of a typical Mexican wolf, Robinson said.

The sightings of the Grand Canyon gray wolf are reminiscent of another recent episode involving a wandering male wolf, OR-7, also known as Journey. OR-7 rose to fame in 2012 after he left his pack in Oregon to go to California, becoming the first known wolf in the state in 87 years. Since then, the wolf (which is tracked by a radio collar) has gone back and forth between Oregon and California several times. As of this summer, he was raising his first puppies with a mate.

OR-7's travels raised hopes that California could once again be home to wild wolves. Similarly, the lone wolf in Arizona is an encouraging sign that it's possible for the species to make a comeback in the remote lands around the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, many roving wolf stories don't have happy endings. When wildlife officials find out about a wolf that has ventured outside its usual territory, it's often because the creature has been shot or found dead, Robinson said. Last year, coyote hunters shot and killed wolves in Missouri and Kansas. A wolf that wandered from Montana to Colorado in 2009 was killed by poison.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put forth a proposal to take gray wolves off the Endangered Species List, claiming that recovery goals have been met for the animals. Earlier this year, an independent peer review concluded that there is wide disagreement about some of the science the agency used to support the proposal. Some biologists and conservationists have voiced concern that delisting the wolves would prevent the species from recolonizing other states and leave the animals vulnerable to unsustainable hunting policies. FWS officials were expected to make a final ruling on the embattled proposal by the end of the year.

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Representatives with the Center for Biological Diversity say this is a picture of the wolf that has been seen around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Even gray wolves like to cool off in the summer with juicy watermelons, as long as those melons are stuffed with pig ears, cheese and dog biscuits. The Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana raises the canids in captivity for research and educational purposes. Every July, the wolves get a watermelon filled with goodies.

This wolf's name is Renki.

Wolfgang, the watermelon-wielding wolf shown here, gets more than just a snack. He puts his natural instincts and abilities to use when presented with the challenge of digging treats out of a melon.

"Giving the wolves enrichment materials, like watermelons, presents the animals with an opportunity to make choices," Elizabeth Rose, the Wolf Park's managing director, told Discovery News. "Giving animals in captivity the chance to make choices helps reduce boredom and keeps their minds in shape, as well as their bodies."

Although wolves tend to hunt livelier prey than watermelons in the wild, the animals use many of the same motor skills and social behaviors they would use while foraging, hunting and sharing a kill.

Renki tends to get the most exited when he gets his watermelon treat, Rose said.

Renki defends his melon, much like a wild wolf would defend a hunk of elk. The Wolf Park staff explains the animals' behaviors to visitors during the melon party.

The Wolf Park opened in 1972 and has held the Watermelon Party for 13 years. The idea for the party came after park staff noted that the wolves were looking longingly at watermelon slices that the humans were eating during a July 4th celebration.

Rose noted that normally the staff don't eat in front of the wolves. However, on that 4th of July someone decided to let the wolf try some watermelon and a tradition was born.

The wolves will receive another seasonal treat in autumn, when the Wolf Park throws the Pumpkin Party.

Life isn't all fruit parties for these wolves. They help scientists research the behavior of canids, the animal group that contains dogs.

Some recent research has focused on the ability of wolves to learn from other wolves, as well as comparisons between dog and wolf behavior in relation to humans.

An Australian shepherd dog may be able to outwit an Irish setter, but research suggests wolves are really the top-dogs in intelligence compared with their domesticated cousins, according to Rose.

Now for a human intelligence test: What is the linguistic connection between this cantaloupe and Fiona, the wolf that is gnawing on the melon?

Answer: The word cantaloupe derived from the Italian for "singing wolf."

The village of Cantalupo, Italy may be where the melon was first bred. The village might have gotten its name from wolves that once roamed the area.

Now, real singing wolves rarely howl around Cantalupo, Italy for the same reasons that wolves face danger in many areas around the world.

In the U.S. wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Wyoming now allow some degree of wolf hunting.

Despite humans, wolves still maintain a huge range over North America, Europe and Asia. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature list gray wolves as a species of least concern.