By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A gray wolf was recently photographed on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona in what would be the first wolf sighting in the national park since the last one was killed there in the 1940s, conservation groups said on Thursday.
There was no immediate word from the National Park Service on whether it had authenticated the sighting, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Charna Lefton, said the agency was sending a team to try to capture the animal in question.
The wolf in the photos, which have not been viewed by Reuters, was wearing what was believed to be an inactive radio collar, according to those who have seen the pictures.
The images were taken by a park visitor who shared them with conservation activists and park staff, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which made the findings public.
Any wolf roaming the vicinity of the Grand Canyon, located in north-central Arizona, would be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
If confirmed to be a western gray wolf, as suspected, it would presumably have traveled hundreds of miles south from the Northern Rockies, where the animals were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s.
A separate population, from a subspecies known as the Mexican gray wolf, is known to inhabit southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from the Grand Canyon.
But the animal pictured on the canyon's north rim appeared larger in size than a typical Mexican wolf.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the group wanted to publicize the sighting to prevent the animal from being mistaken for a coyote and possibly shot as a result.
The sighting comes as the Obama administration is weighing a proposal to lift Endangered Species Act protections for all wolves but the Mexican gray subspecies, even in states where wolves are not currently known to have established a presence.
Grand Canyon park ranger A.J. Lapre told Reuters he was not aware of the Park Service taking a position on the reported sighting.
He added that a park visitor over the summer had reported losing a pet dog-wolf hybrid on the northern side of the canyon and that the animal had since been spotted but was not believed to be wearing a radio collar.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)