For the past year and a half, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has been investigating reports that wolves might be in a remote area east of Springville in north-central Utah.
On March 4, while flying over the area in a helicopter, personnel with the USDA-Wildlife Services found the best evidence yet.
The personnel were performing coyote control in the area when they spotted what appeared to be four wolves or wolf-dog hybrids.
Until biologists can obtain the animals' DNA and get it tested, they won't know for sure whether the animals are wolves or wolf-dog hybrids.
(A wolf-dog hybrid is a cross between a wolf and a domestic dog.)
Capturing the animals
A snow storm is expected to hit the area during the evening of March 6. Kevin Bunnell, Wildlife Section chief for the DWR, says the storm should give personnel from a helicopter capture company the DWR has contracted with enough snow to help them locate and track the animals.
"After picking up their tracks and locating the animals from the air," Bunnell says, "the capture company should be able to capture one or two of the animals by shooting a net over them from a helicopter. Then we can examine the animals and draw blood samples to see if the animals are related to the wolves released in Yellowstone National Park."
DWR biologists will also place radio collars on the animals so the biologists can track their movements.
The DWR is coordinating the capture with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The USFWS is the federal agency that has management authority over wolves that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Bunnell says it will take a couple of weeks for a lab at the University of California at Los Angeles to analyze the blood and provide results to the DWR.
If the animals are wolf-dog hybrids, Bunnell says the animals will be killed. If the animals are wolves, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority for the animals.
"Except for a small area in northern Utah," Bunnell says, "any wolf that enters the state is fully protected by the federal Endangered Species Act."
Outside of that small area in northern Utah, Bunnell says the DWR doesn't have any management authority over wolves in Utah. All management authority rests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The USFWS has given the DWR approval to capture the animals and draw their blood.
Biologists weren't surprised
Bunnell says DWR biologists weren't surprised to learn that Wildlife Services personnel saw wolves or wolf-dog hybrids on March 4.
DWR biologists have been investigating reported sightings in the area for more than a year.
Bunnell says a photo a hunter shared with them in fall 2010 was the first solid evidence DWR biologists received. "The photo was taken by a trail camera the hunter had set up in the area," he says. "An animal that appeared to be a wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid was in one of the photos."
In fall 2011, Wildlife Services personnel examined a calf that had been killed in the area. The way the calf was killed made them suspect that a wolf did the killing.
"In addition to these two reports," Bunnell says, "our biologists have responded to several reported sightings they received from the public. The biologists placed several remote cameras in the area to try to locate the animals they were receiving reports about."
Having personnel with the USDA-Wildlife Services spot the animals from the air and provide DWR biologists with a solid location will hopefully be the final item biologists need to locate the animals and examine them.
More information about the possible wolf sighting, wolf management in Utah and the state's wolf management plan are available at wildlife.utah.gov/wolf .