FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A female gray wolf from the Northern Rockies traveled hundreds of miles into northern Arizona, marking the species' first appearance in the region in more than 70 years and the farthest journey south, wildlife officials confirmed Friday.
A wolf-like animal had been spotted roaming the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the adjacent national forest since last month. Biologists collected its scat and sent it to a University of Idaho laboratory for testing, verifying what environmentalists had suspected based on its appearance and a radio collar around its neck.
"The corroboration is really good to get," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Biologists don't know the wolf's age or from where it traveled. The radio collar wasn't transmitting a signal, and cold weather forced biologists to suspended efforts to capture the animal and replace the collar.
The Idaho lab might be able to glean more details about the wolf from its DNA, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said that could take several weeks or months.
"We'll let this wolf be a wolf where it's at, and if it decides it's going to move back north, it can do that," he said. "Or if somebody joins her, then that's nature taking its course."
Wolves often roam vast distances in search of food and mates. But the farther they go, the less likely they are to find a mate, said Ed Bangs, who led recovery efforts for wolves in the Northern Rockies over two decades before retiring from the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011.
"It's looking for love," he said. "It leaves the core population and doesn't know the love of its life is going to be right over the next hill, so it just keeps traveling."
About 25 percent of the roughly 1,700 wolves from the Northern Rockies are being tracked, wildlife officials said. They are distinguished from the Mexican gray wolves found in the Southwest by their more full bodies and less pointed ears.
Mike Jimenez with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming said Northern Rockies gray wolves are hard-wired to disperse and have traveled hundreds of miles. One young female started off in Montana and traveled 3,000 miles over six months, making stops in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado before it died, he said. Colorado had been the farthest journey south for the animals until the female was confirmed in Arizona, he said.
Wolves from another major population in the western Great Lakes have likewise been found far from home.
Wolves largely were exterminated early last century across the lower 48 states, except in the western Great Lakes area. The Northern Rockies population was restored after 66 gray wolves from Canada were relocated to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in the mid-1990s.
They've been absent from the Grand Canyon region since the 1940s.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years lifted federal protections for the animals in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies. A federal judge recently ordered the protections re-instated in Wyoming after wildlife advocates sued.
Environmentalists are pressing for continued protection of gray wolves. Meanwhile, they celebrated the news of the one in northern Arizona.
"I wonder if she has any sense of the celebrity she has achieved," said Drew Kerr of WildEarth Guardians.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.