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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah hunters found what could be the first wolf discovered in the state in years Tuesday, although officials from the Division of Wildlife Resources say the animal, found dead on the side of the road in Duchesne County, is likely a hybrid.
Stephen Gray had wrapped up a successful day duck hunting with family and friends near Duchesne in northeastern Utah, and stopped at a gas station along U.S. Route 40 before heading home. As they pulled onto the highway, one of his friends noticed a large black object on the side of the road.
"He said, 'oh my gosh, there's a wolf.' And we were like, 'no, there's no wolves in Utah,'" Gray told the Deseret News Wednesday.
The group turned the car around and inspected the animal. Gray said it had no signs of a collar, and its toenails were worn down, but didn't appear to be trimmed. He pulled back its upper lips, exposing its massive teeth.
An experienced hunter, Gray said the animal was smaller than some of the wolves he's seen while in Alaska and Montana. But he had no doubt — "we were 100% sure we had seen a wolf."
Wildlife officials on Wednesday said there is no confirmation whether the animal is a wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid. The carcass was sent to a lab to undergo genetic testing, and results could be several months away.
Tonya Kieffer-Selby, conservation outreach manager stationed for the division's Vernal office, said wildlife biologists investigated the carcass.
"It seems like the characteristics are more consistent with a wolf-dog hybrid because of size, coloration and skull characteristics," she said.
Biologists noted the animal's claws had signs of wear, as if they had been repeatedly scratched on a hard surface. It had brown color between its toes and the back of its legs — black wolves usually have gray or white coloring there, but not brown. It was also roughly four feet long, while most wolves usually span between five and six feet. Kieffer-Selby said it was "a little bigger than a German Shepherd."
The animal was found roughly 100 feet from a gas station by the intersection of U.S. Route 40 and state Route 311. It was likely killed by a car, and Kieffer-Selby says there were bloodstains on the highway. It had been dead for some time, and when wildlife biologists arrived it was frozen solid. There had been no recent wolf sightings in the area, she said.
"Being that it was right off of the highway, it could be that it was someone's pet that just got hit at the wrong place at the wrong time," she said.
Wolf-dog hybrids are legal pets in Utah, and across the Mountain West they're often mistaken for wild wolves. The Division of Wildlife Resources says there are about 300,000 in the U.S.
"If it was somebody's pet, kudos to whoever that was for having such a crazy pet," said Gray, the hunter.
Wolves in Utah
Confirmed wolf sightings in the Beehive State are rare — since 1995, there have only been 15 to 20. Most have been in counties near Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. Officials say there is not evidence of a pack.
"If there is an established wolf pack, they tend to make themselves pretty well known. And if people have remote camera photos, they tend to share them," said Kim Hersey, the mammal conservation coordinator for the Division of Wildlife. "I haven't seen any evidence that makes me think we have an established pack in the state at this time. And we'll go out and investigate sightings when we have them."
Wolves are politically divisive — environmental groups champion the return of the species, and filed lawsuits in the wake of former President Trump delisting them from the Endangered Species Act in 2020.
Meanwhile ranchers say wolves pose a threat to their livelihood. Wherever wolves are reintroduced, reports of livestock killed often follow. Hunters also say wolves are the cause of declining elk and deer populations in the Northern Rockies. It's legal to hunt wolves in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Alaska. In Utah, they were delisted statewide in January 2021.
Colorado voters recently approved a ballot measure to reintroduce wolves into the state, although it wont take effect until 2023. The rural-urban divide surrounding wolves was evident in the election, with voters along the populated front range supporting the measure, and rural voters overwhelmingly against it. It passed in 2020 with just 50.9% of the vote.
Over the years, hunters have reported hearing and seeing wolves, usually on the northern slope of the Uinta Mountains, and in Morgan, Rich and Cache Counties. Often, the sightings turn out to be large coyotes — sometimes they're wolf-dog hybrids, or even huskies. In 2008, one man even shot a wolf-dog in Box Elder County thinking it was the real thing.
But sometimes the sightings are credible, and in 2020 a rancher in Rich County found a calf that had been killed by a gray wolf. His claim was substantiated by bite marks, tracks and scat. Officials set traps, but they were unsuccessful and were pulled about a month later.
Several years ago, Gray says he saw what he thinks were two wolves north of Strawberry Reservoir, not far from where he found the carcass on Tuesday.
Gray posted the pictures of the dead animal on Facebook, and it soon made the rounds on numerous state hunting and fishing pages. Hundreds took to the comment section, some sharing pictures of wolves caught on trail cameras, others claiming they saw tracks as recently as last week, and many accusing the Division of Wildlife of covering up evidence. Some allege the state intentionally denies the wolves' presence to avoid diverting resources.
"We don't have wolves in Utah, we do however have very large, strange-colored coyotes," one person said sarcastically.
"Go drive up around Fruitland, there are definitely wolves up there. Can hear them at night and can see tracks," wrote another.
"Hybrid wolf is DWR slang for the Utah wolf," said one hunter.
Hersey isn't sure what the motive would be for the division to cover up wolves in the state. "There is no grand conspiracy," she said, pointing to the division's wolf management plan.
Hersey likened it to recent wolverine sightings. In May, video captured the rare animal near Antelope Island, and a month later a doorbell camera in Layton caught what was possibly the same wolverine. If an animal as elusive as a wolverine can be caught on camera, so could a wolf pack, she argues.
If the state does confirm a wolf pack, the management plan calls for the division to conserve and manage them unless they're causing agricultural damage.
"We would want to get radio collars on them, if possible, and get information on what areas they're using, what prey items are they taking, and make sure that they're not getting into depredation troubles," Hersey said.
Correction: A previous version misspelled the last name of Tonya Kieffer-Selby, conservation outreach manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, as Keiffer-Selvy.