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THISTLE JUNCTION, Wasatch County — A state biologist scrambled to a stretch of busy highway Tuesday morning after a motorist reported seeing wolves feeding on a deer.
It turned out to be the latest in a string of unconfirmed or faulty wolf reports that are now becoming a problem for state wildlife officials.
Kimberly Hersey, a biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, examined dead deer and paw prints at the scene. She concluded it was highly unlikely that wolves were involved. "It could even be some sort of domestic dog in this area," Hersey said.
"We're getting swamped with calls" about wolves, said John Shivik, mammals coordinator for the DWR. "It's not helpful," he said, adding that he doesn't want to discourage people from calling if they truly believe they have seen wolves.
The division has experts monitoring the situation and actively investigating possible wolf sightings. If such a sighting were confirmed, it would be the first wolf-pack known to be active in Utah for nearly a century.
The recent surge of purported sightings was prompted by a DWR announcement two weeks ago that there have been credible sightings in recent months near Hobble Creek Canyon.
But it's clear that many people have trouble distinguishing between wolves and other "canids" including coyotes, wolf-dog hybrids and even domestic dogs. Such differences can be difficult to observe, especially when animals are seen at a distance or glimpsed only briefly by a passing motorist.
The latest "wolf" report did seem a bit too out-in-the-open for the normally elusive predator. The sighting was alongside U.S. 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon just a few dozen yards from busy Thistle Junction. The report came from a motorist who emailed KSL-TV. "I spotted wolves feeding off a dead deer on HWY 6 near the Manti turnoff," wrote Keya Long. "Maybe you can inform the proper authorities?"
When KSL contacted the DWR, officials immediately sent Hersey to the scene. She quickly observed canid paw prints in the snow near one of the dead deer. "You can tell it's some sort of dog by the toe-prints," the biologist said. But she found evidence that the deer had been partially eaten by scavengers after death, rather than being killed by predators. "I would expect that this was a road-killed animal that the canine was feeding on," Hersey said.
Wolves sometimes do take advantage of a "free lunch" Hersey said, occasionally eating an animal that's already dead. But she said such behavior, especially alongside a busy highway, is more characteristic of coyotes and dogs.
Her examination of paw prints in the snow cast more doubt on the theory that wolves were involved. "Based on my gut reaction, probably not," Hersey said. "Usually when you see a wolf, it's not just sort of big, it's really big. You'll put your hand down and the track will be as big or larger than a human hand print."
As she demonstrated her point, Hersey's hand was clearly larger than the paw prints.
She took measurements and established that the paw prints were just more than 3 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches wide. Wolf paws are generally much larger. Hersey made similar observations about the distance between paw prints; the length of stride was much shorter than would be expected for a wolf.
"And even if it were a young wolf," Hersey said, "by this time of year it would be a full size animal."
Hersey's observations were not disputed by the driver who saw the animals. "I'm kind of doubting they were wolves now," Keya Long wrote in a later email."Maybe they were 3 huge dogs."
On the other hand, DWR experts are still taking seriously a series of recent sightings a few miles away. Surveillance photos show wolf-like animals that left much larger paw prints.
"There is some sort of canid with large feet out here," Hersey said. "We just haven't gotten the strong evidence to say what exactly it is at this point."