TUCSON, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- No body had seen a wolf in or around the Grand Canyon in more than 70 years. But the reports and photos started coming in October. For weeks, whispers swirled of a lone four-legged, gray-furred hunter roaming the conifer forests just north of Grand Canyon National Park -- too big to be coyote, those who spotted the shifty creature said. But could it really be a wolf? Some suggested it could be a wolf-dog hybrid, escaped from a breeder in the area.
For those that caught a glimpse of the elusive predator over the last several weeks -- including half a dozen or so park rangers -- there's no more second-guessing. DNA samples, collected from the animal's scat, were tested at a lab at the University of Idaho, and the results came back Friday of last week.
It's a wolf. The tests confirmed the specimen to be a female gray wolf hailing from the Northern Rockies.
"In October it was perplexing -- now it's exciting," National Park Service spokesman Jeff Humphrey told the Los Angeles Times. "But it certainly continues to be mystifying."
Earlier photos of the wolf confirmed that she is wearing a tag; but the tracking device isn't functioning properly, as earlier attempts to pick up a signal proved fruitless. The presence of the tag and the DNA test results suggest the female wolf wandered more than 450 miles from the Colorado Rockies to Arizona -- leaving established gray wolf populations there for uncharted habitat to the south.
Gray wolves were once spread out across North America, but the species was hunted to near-extinction by the beginning of the 20th century. Federal protections and reintroduction programs have helped nurse regional populations back to health and the majestic predator has made a steady comeback over the last few decades.
Though the species remains federally listed as endangered, the emergence of sustainable, breeding wolf populations throughout the West and Midwest have enabled wildlife officials to delist the predator in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Idaho and Montana, as well as in parts of the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Now, policy makers with the Fish and Wildlife Service are considering removing the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list. Conservationists say the new gray-coated animal at the top of the Grand Canyon's food chain is proof that national protections are still necessary. Had the wolf not been protected federally, she could (in some cases) have been open game for hunters as she wandered south from Colorado across public and private lands.
"It is too soon to yank that protection away from them," said Suzanne Stone, a conservationist with the group Defenders of Wildlife.
Wildlife officials in Arizona are warning hunters in Kaibab National Forest to be on the lookout for the wolf, emphasizing the importance of not mistaking the lone female for a coyote. Wolf enthusiasts like Stone are both anxious and excited -- and hoping the new female is a sign of more to come.
"She is very special," Stone added. "For every wolf that we discover, there are typically more that we haven't, and hopefully that means there are more wolves that are trying to recolonize this historic park."