By Ari Phillips
Officials have confirmed that the first gray wolf seen around the Grand Canyon in 70 years was killed in December by a hunter in southern Utah after he mistook it for coyote. The three-year-old female, named “Echo” through a contest held with hundreds of schoolchildren, was the first gray wolf to be spotted in the region since the 1940s. After being collared in Wyoming in early January 2014, the wolf had ventured at least 750 miles into the new territory — further evidence that gray wolf populations are coming back from the brink of extinction after decades of reckless killings.
“The fact the Echo had ventured into new territory hopefully signifies that there is still additional habitat where this vulnerable species can thrive and survive,” Nidhi J. Thakar, deputy director of the public lands project at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress.
While the gray wolf may be making a comeback it still occupies only around 10 percent of its historic range, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which states that researchers have identified more than 350,000 square miles of unoccupied suitable wolf habit including remote stretches of the southern Rockies, Adirondacks, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade mountains. In the mid-20th century, the only places gray wolves could be found in the U.S. included a slice of northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Isle Royale.
The coyote hunter who shot Echo, and whose name has not been released, reported the killing to authorities as an accident. Gray wolves are on the Endangered Species Act and it is illegal to kill them anywhere in the U.S. except Idaho and Montana, eastern Washington and Oregon, and northeastern Utah. According to the Center For Biological Diversity, this partial removal of federal protections in the Northwest has lead to the deaths of thousands of wolves through state-authorized hunting and trapping in recent years. Congress is now considering a legislative rider that would preclude protecting wandering wolves like Echo, according to the wildlife conservation group.
“Echo’s killing illustrates the perils that wolves face and the imperative to maintain federal protections as called for under the science-based standards of the Endangered Species Act,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Keeping wolves on the endangered list is the basis for the public education we need, to enable more wolves to live and thrive and minimize conflict.”
There are now more than 6,000 gray wolves in the continental United States, concentrated in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as well as the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and eastern Oregon and Washington.
As urban boundaries sprawl across the West — encroaching further into wild areas suitable for large animals such as wolves — the issue of co-existence becomes more important as animals have limited alternative habitat to retreat into. While ranchers and sportsmen are familiar with the challenges of habituating among wild animals, larger and denser developments can cause the tensions to escalate.
“As urban habitats expand into undeveloped areas there is an increasing challenge with ensuring wolves can peacefully co-exist with humans,” said Thakar.
Existing with humans means far more than just learning how to cross the street: on top of sprawling development, expansive ecological damage associated with climate change and fossil fuel extraction cause massive habitat degradation. Even the species that thrive in this new human-dominated era, such as coyotes, are caught in a continuous struggle — and the results can be surprising.
This year a black bear killed a hiker in New Jersey for the first time in over 150 years as the bear population grows and spreads throughout the state. Polar bear attacks on humans are increasing in areas around the Arctic. And a new hybrid between coyotes and wolves, the coywolf, is rapidly expanding across the East as it combines the prowess of a wolf and cunning of a coyote — a bad combination for deer, another species that is thriving across suburban America.
With more species struggling to survive in a dramatically altered wild, this co-existence with unfamiliar species may become increasingly common as human populations continue to grow, urbanize, and demand more resources.