Federal wildlife biologists have now confirmed that the wolf seen recently on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is the same wolf that was killed by a hunter in Utah who claims he mistook the wolf for a coyote. (You can see photos of the wolf here.) The facts of the case are under investigation, but generally the Justice Department declines to prosecute hunters who mistakenly identify their prey, even when the case involves animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Although I am philosophically inclined to come down hard on anyone who shoots protected species, I feel an obligation, because of a personal experience, to give this particular hunter the benefit of the doubt.
Several summers ago, my son and I were hiking to the summit of Crozier Mountain, a small mountain outside of Glen Haven, Colorado. We were nearly to the summit trail, when two animals appeared out of the forest about 50 yards ahead of us. Both of us stopped in our tracks. As the animals loped across the trail, the larger of the two looked directly at us. When they were gone, we looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Wolves!?”
Neither of us could believe what we had seen. Wolves are not suppose to be in Colorado, although we had seen them in Wyoming to the north. Several years before we had made a pilgrimage to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park to see wolves in the wild. After a few moments of silence, the question floating in the air between us, I asked, “Was that a coyote?” A coyote made about 99.9 percent more sense than a wolf. Surely it was a coyote! But, we have lived in the West all of our lives. We have seen hundreds of coyotes between us. What we had seen in front of us was not a coyote. Should we believe what our eyes and mind was screaming at us, or what we understood the facts of wildlife in Colorado to be?
In the end, I decided to leave the wolf sighting out of my patrol report. Who would believe me? And, I didn’t want to look the fool. Half the hikers in the Rawah Wilderness identify the bighorn sheep there as “mountain goats.” I didn’t want to get lumped in with that crowd. But, still…
Later that week, I got up enough courage to ask a friend, a Division of Wildlife officer, what she thought about the story. Surprisingly, she didn’t dismiss it out of hand, although she thought it more likely that what we had seen were a couple of escaped wolf-hybrids. Apparently, there are plenty of these animals scattered throughout Colorado, and some of them look enough like wolves to fool even wolf experts. This now seems to me the most likely explanation of what we saw.
In the years since, I have told very few people of our “wolf sighting.” I’m still a little embarrassed about it, for reasons I don’t fully understand. But, I can understand a hunter finding it hard to believe a wolf is in his sights. It would be so much easier to believe the target was an animal that was “suppose” to be there.
Grey wolf image: “Wolf, voor de natuur, Saxifraga – Jan Nijendijk.5097” by Jan nijendijk – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Grey wolf hybrid image: by Mariomassone on Wikipedia with a Creative Commons license.