MARCH 7 2012 23:25h

Canine sightings in Utah may be wolf pack

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SALT LAKE CITY, March 7 (UPI) -- Four large canines sighted in Utah by a state coyote-control crew might be Utah's first confirmed wolf pack in generations, state wildlife officials said.

The crew was flying in a helicopter in eastern Utah County looking to shoot coyotes when they spotted large canines they said were likely wolves or wolf-dog hybrids, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Wednesday.

If they are pure wolves they would represent the first confirmed group activity among wolves in Utah in many years, probably coming from populations in Idaho or Wyoming, Kevin Bunnell of the Division of Wildlife Resources said.

Wildlife biologists have been investigating reported sightings in the area since fall 2010 when a hunter gave them a photo, captured by a trail camera, of an animal that appeared to be a wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid.

If the sighted animals are wolves they would be protected as an endangered species because they were spotted outside an area where northern Rocky Mountain wolves were removed from the endangered list, Bunnell said.

"If they're wolves," he said, "then we kind of step aside to a certain extent [because] they are under the authority of the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service."

State officials said a search will be made for the animals and if they are found a wildlife trapping crew will tranquilize them, draw blood for DNA testing then release them and track them by radio collar.

If they prove to be hybrids, the state could kill them, officials said, but if they're wolves, federal permission would be required to remove them.

"There's no good reason to remove them," said Kirk Robinson, director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy of Salt Lake City and a supporter of Utah wolf recovery.

"They belong in the ecosystem, even if it's inconvenient for some people or causes some distress."