By Henry Brean
Beyond the one that prowls the university in Reno, Nevada is not known for its wolf packs.
But a national environmental group believes the Silver State could someday support wolves, assuming the animals survive long enough to make it here.
A new Center for Biological Diversity report identifies almost 360,000 square-miles of potential gray wolf habitat in the West and Northeast, including roughly 6,000 square-miles in scattered patches of Nevada.
The Tucson, Ariz.-based group argues that the current gray wolf population could be doubled to about 10,000 by expanding recovery efforts.
The report, titled “Making Room for Wolf Recovery: The Case for Maintaining Endangered Species Act Protections for America’s Wolves,” comes as the Obama Administration considers removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list, a decision expected by year’s end.
The wolf came under federal protection in 1973. Efforts to reintroduce it to the wild began in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1994 amid controversy and stiff opposition from ranchers and other residents of the rural West.
No one is advocating that wolves should be released into Nevada, which apparently hasn’t had a confirmed wolf sighting since one was killed in Elko County almost a century ago. But the animals could find their way here on their own, and they deserve to be protected if they do, said Amaroq Weiss, the Center for Biological Diversity’s West Coast wolf organizer and one of the authors of the report.
She said that in 56 documented cases over the past 30 years wolves have dispersed from designated recovery areas into other states, often with disastrous results ending with the wandering animals being shot.
“Wolves are desperately trying to make their way to these places that are good for them. It’s a question of whether we have the political will to let that happen,” she said.
ARIZONA’S UNLIKELY ANIMAL
The idea is more than hypothetical. In recent weeks, a “wolf-like animal” has been repeatedly spotted — and photographed — near the north rim of the Grand Canyon, about 250 miles east of Las Vegas.
The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service has not yet determined whether the animal is a protected gray wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid, but it does appear to be wearing a radio collar that no longer works.
Some experts believe it’s a gray wolf from the Northern Rocky Mountains, and that it made its way to Northern Arizona from Idaho or central Wyoming, the two closest areas where wolves have been caught and collared.
Wildlife officials expect pending DNA tests of the wolf’s scat will tell them what they are dealing with. If it’s a wolf, they hope to capture the animal, examine it and give it a new, brightly colored radio collar before turning it loose.
There have been no confirmed wolf encounters on the Kaibab Plateau, near the canyon’s north rim, since 1939, said Jeff Humphrey, spokesman for the Fish &Wildlife Service in Arizona.
What’s happening now is rare, regardless of whether the animal turns out to be a hybrid living in the wild, a Northern Rocky gray wolf roughly 700 miles from home, or a Mexican gray wolf that found its way across or around the Grand Canyon from a federal recovery area established along the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1998.
“Any of these scenarios would seem far-fetched, but that’s what we’ve got on the ground,” Humphrey said.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Nevada has the least amount of wolf habitat of any Western state, with only patchy areas mostly along the Utah and Idaho borders. The state’s largest potential wolf country is in eastern Lincoln County, near Beaver Dam State Park, no more than 200 miles from downtown Las Vegas.
NO COUNTRY FOR LONE WOLVES
Some are skeptical of the center’s findings.
Brian Wakeling is game division chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife in Reno. He said he doubts Nevada could support more than a handful of wolves — too few to form a genetically viable pack — because there simply aren’t enough deer and elk to hunt. And it’s been that way for a long time.
“Historically there were never a lot of wolves in Nevada,” Wakeling said. “It’s not unreasonable to think that wolves have occurred in Nevada, but they were certainly not abundant.”
State wildlife officials designated the gray wolf as a game species in 2008, but no sanctioned hunt has been held. Wakeling said the change was made to give state officials the regulatory framework to prosecute anyone who might kill a wolf in Nevada.
Wolves remain federally protected through much of the U.S., at least for now. The Center for Biological Diversity insists they should stay that way until they have been restored to far more of their historic range, which once stretched from coast-to-coast covering more than 75 percent of the country. Their survival cannot be left in the hands of individual states that have shown no ability — or inclination — to protect them, the center argues.
“We didn’t lose wolves because we lost habitat. We lost wolves because we killed them,” said the center’s Weiss. “The Obama Administration must finally acknowledge that recovering wolves to sustainable populations is far from done.”
As for the “wolf-like animal” currently prowling north of the Grand Canyon, Humphrey said it appears to be alone, but that doesn’t mean it’s doomed to stay that way. There have been other well-documented cases of wolves wandering hundreds, even thousands of miles from where they were born, yet still finding a mate.
“Wolves have a way of finding other other wolves,” Humphrey said.