TUCSON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- An endangered gray wolf may be roaming the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, though wildlife officials won't say for sure until they have physical evidence. A gray wolf hasn't been seen in the Grand Canyon since the 1940s.
A number of photos of the creature thought to be a Mexican gray wolf have been taken since it was first spotted three weeks ago in northern Arizona's Kaibab National Forest. But the photos, mostly taken with cellphone cameras, have most park rangers and biologists thinking the creature is likely a wolf hybrid, or wolfdog.
"It does not appear to be a Mexican wolf," said Jeff Humphrey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.
But more recent images, captured by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, have some wildlife officials reconsidering. The new photographs show a collar featuring a large brass planet, not something you'd expect to find on a dog collar. Still, state and federal officials say they won't be able to confirm the animal's identity until they can analyze a DNA sample.
"Until we get confirmation of the DNA, everything is uncertain, and everyone's interpretation of the pictures is uncertain," Jim DeVos, assistant director for wildlife management in Arizona, told the Arizona Daily Star.
Wildlife officials are taking a wait-and-see approach, but wolf activists are more gung-ho about the authenticity of the recent sightings. The endangered wolf is an endangered wolf until proved otherwise, is their motto.
"I'm absolutely thrilled that a wolf managed to travel so far to reclaim the Grand Canyon as a home for wolves," Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a recent press release. "This wolf's journey starkly highlights the fact that wolf recovery is still in its infancy and that these important and magnificent animals continue to need Endangered Species Act protections."
If it is a gray wolf, wildlife officials say it likely wandered south from northern timber wolf populations in the Rockies, as opposed to north from the populations of Mexican gray wolves across the border.
Though state and federal officials are working to protect the so-called wolf until its identity can be confirmed, DeVos says it's irresponsible to jump the gun on confirming an endangered species' presence.
"A statement like that has no value till we wait a short time to capture and ID it," he said. "Certainly the presence of a true gray wolf is important. That's why we need to go capture it and take a tissue sample, and that's why we have not made a big deal out of it."