(Reuters) - Conservationists on Friday criticized as irresponsible a coyote hunter's shooting and killing of a protected gray wolf that had likely trekked hundreds of miles (km) to Colorado from the Northern Rocky Mountains.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said late on Thursday that test results revealed the animal shot and killed outside Kremmling on April 29 was a wolf, the first confirmed in Colorado since a radio-collared gray wolf was illegally poisoned in 2009 in the northwest part of the state.
Federal and state wildlife managers said the hunter had been shooting coyotes at long range and that he immediately notified Colorado Parks and Wildlife when he realized the animal was possibly a gray wolf, which is protected in most of the Lower 48 states under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is listed as endangered in Colorado.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the state are investigating whether the hunter violated federal and Colorado laws in the death of the wolf, including a state requirement that hunters properly identify their targets before seeking to harvest an animal, said Matt Robbins, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
It was the second protected gray wolf to be killed in the southern Rockies by a coyote hunter since October, when a Utah man shot "Echo," a female that had garnered international attention after roaming from Wyoming to become the first wolf seen at the Grand Canyon in more than 70 years.
Conservationists on Friday took aim at hunters of coyotes, which are allowed to be shot on sight in most of the nation, for actions they said were irresponsible and unsafe.
"This is a very sad event that raises questions about coyote hunters who seem to be shooting indiscriminately at anything that moves," said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
It is illegal to kill wolves without a special permit in the Lower 48 states except in Idaho and Montana where the animals have been removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species and can be legally hunted and trapped.
Prior to 2009, a gray wolf was confirmed in Colorado in 2004 when it was killed by a motorist on an interstate highway. The last wild wolf known in the state was trapped and killed by the U.S. government in 1945 as part of an extensive eradication program.
Robinson said the wolf that died last month in Colorado had likely roamed there from the Northern Rockies but U.S. wildlife officials could not immediately be reached for comment to confirm its origins.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)