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Did the boy cry wolf, or could there actually be a gray wolf roaming around the Grand Canyon for the first time since the 1940s?

Although officials at the Grand Canyon are still trying to determine if the reports are true, there has been some speculation about a sole gray wolf living just north of Grand Canyon National Park. Just a few weeks ago, a visitor of the national park was able to catch the animal on camera, and some photographs showed the canid wearing some kind of radio collar. After notifying officials, it was up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to verify the sighting by capturing the animal and taking DNA samples.

Though efforts to track the animal have been unsuccessful, officials have publicized the sighting to “prevent the animal from being mistaken for a coyote and possibly shot as a result.”

Mexican gray wolves typically roam southeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico, but biologists say that the images of the proposed gray wolf show a canid that is closer to the size of a western gray wolf. If this report is true, it is likely that the unlikely Canyon visitor came from the northern Rocky Mountains … a region where gray wolf numbers are estimated to be around 1,700 thanks to a reintroduction program in the 1990s.

Biologists and wildlife experts are excited about the news because, according to Center for Biological Diversity executive, Noah Greenwald, “It really highlights the fact that wolves are still recovering and occupy just a fraction of their historic range.”

Gray wolves could once be found living all over the United States, but they were persecuted (mainly by farmers trying to protect their livestock) and made victims of aggressive hunting and bounty efforts in the early 20th century. Wolves are important because they are apex carnivores and a keystone species. These predatory animals put pressure on grazing species (such as elk and deer) and force them to move rather than overgraze certain locations. Overtime, habitats are reestablished, and organismal populations are able to thrive because of balanced wolf populations.

For anyone looking to cause trouble with this canine, you may want to think again. Currently, the wolf is fully protected under the Endangered Species Act which, according to the Center of Biological Diversity, “prohibits killing, wounding or harassing the animal and provides other protections.”

Image source: Martin Mecnarowksi/Wikimedia Commons