Around its neck they saw what appeared to be a black collar holding a silver box. They stopped to watch the animal, which seemed indifferent to their presence as they snapped a photo. It left the road from the direction it came and walked up a hill as if watching for something, according to a report taken five days later by a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officer.
Although the men reported the wolf sighting and posted photos of the animal and its tracks, DWR did nothing to alert the hunting community to take precautions to avoid shooting a wolf, a federally protected animal.
Hardly a month later, on Dec. 28, the 3-year-old female wolf the same one observed on the Grand Canyon's North Rim last October and dubbed Echo was shot. A .223- caliber round tore though her chest while she wandered east of Beaver. The man who pulled the trigger had been stalking cougar that day and mistook the animal for a coyote, a species subject to no hunting restrictions.
Conservationists are using the Nov. 20 sighting to renew criticism of Utah's controversial bounty on coyotes, which they believe serves no legitimate biological purpose and could undermine the re- establishment of wolf populations in Utah.
"Utah officials helped kill this female wolf who could have contributed to recovery of her kind and the health of ecosystems in Utah," said Michael Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity's wolf advocate. Robinson's colleague Robin Silver obtained documents about the Nov. 20 sighting through a government record request.
"Despite a clear photo of the wolf taken 65 miles from where she died, and online threats to kill her, state officials continued to offer $50 for every dead coyote," Robinson said. "Echo's unnecessary death underscores the importance of retaining and enforcing federal protection for wolves. And given the primacy of federal law, we strongly recommend that Utah reconsider its repugnant, antediluvian practice of bounty hunting altogether."
On Monday, Robinson sent DWR director Greg Sheehan a request to suspend the bounty program within 200 miles of documented wolf sightings and to make other adjustments to minimize dangers to wolves from unregulated coyote hunting.
Agency officials, however, said such a suspension policy would be nearly impossible to implement and wouldn't accomplish much because dispersing wolves, like those roaming through Utah, cover huge distances. They also noted that the men who shot Echo were not enrolled in Utah's coyote program, so Robinson's recommendations would not have saved the wolf.
"Their choice to harvest what they thought was a coyote was not motivated by the bounty program," said Leslie McFarlane, DWR's game mammal coordinator.
Under the Mule Deer Protection Act, bounty collectors have killed more than 7,000 coyotes each year since the program started in 2012, while contract hunters have killed a few hundred more in areas where mule deer are struggling. Over the most recent year, ending June 30, the bounty program yielded 8,192 sets of ears, surpassing the previous year by more than 1,000, according to McFarlane.
She added that it would be very hard to advise coyote hunters because they don't need to interact with DWR unless they are collecting bounties.
"Coyotes are a nonprotected species; you don't even need a hunting license," she said.
Kim Hersey, DWR's mammal conservation coordinator, has conceded the animal in the photograph in question was most likely Echo, but contends the grainy photo did not conclusively depict a wolf. So, she said, officials at the time could not be certain the animal seen Nov. 20 was a wolf, and it was not from any lack of trying. Officials visited the site of the sighting near the Zion Overlook pullout in search of scat to analyze and checked frequencies used by known wolf radio collars, but found nothing.
"You expect to get repeated sightings over time, and we didn't get any other reports on this animal," Hersey said.
Managing wildlife is a state prerogative, but conservationists believe Utah's coyote program could run afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act if safeguards are not in place to protect wolves from such instances of mistaken identity.
Robinson wants the state to educate all enrollees in the bounty program on how to distinguish the two predators, reminding them that wolves could be present in Utah and that killing them violates the law; request all hunters report wolf sightings; provide a $1,000 reward to those who provide evidence of a live wolf in Utah; and create a system to notify bounty hunters of the presence of wolves when a credible report arises.
DWR's online training program for coyote bounty hunters doesn't mention wolves. McFarlane said officials intend to change that so those who enroll will know the differences between the canine species.
At a distance, a wolf is hard to distinguish from its smaller-bodied cousin, and federal prosecutors declined to press charges against Echo's killer after concluding that he made an honest mistake.
Researchers had captured Echo in February 2014 near Cody, Wyo., and released it with a collar around her neck. She soon wound up 450 miles away in Arizona, perhaps the farthest south a gray wolf had traveled in the 80 years since wolves were eliminated from the Southwest. By October, Echo's radio collar had ceased functioning.
Critics of the decision to not charge the wolf killer point out that the shooter took aim through a 10-power rifle scope at the animal in profile from a distance of 120 yards. At that distance, the animal would seem as close as 12 yards, so its large size and collar should have been apparent.
The bounty gives a financial incentive to shoot without thinking, critics say.
Robinson is concerned that dispersing wolves will not get a chance to colonize new territory if they are under constant threat from hunters and trappers mistaking them for coyotes.
Mike Jimenez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf management coordinator, agreed Robinson is raising valid concerns about coyote hunting, but wondered if suspending the bounty would help a roaming wolf.
"It's a tough balancing act," Jimenez said. "When someone sees a wolf, the problem is where they end up. It could be many, many miles away."
This is because wolves are "hardwired to disperse." In the years since wolves were reintroduced in the Northern Rockies, he said, the evidence indicates the species will continue expanding its range.
"It's heartbreaking to see a wolf die after it has gone so far, but on a population scale, we know they are successful," he said. "You're going to lose some. If you like wolves, that's a sad thing, but if you step back from individual animals, wolves do very well. The last 20 years have shown us wolves do well if they have a little protection."
The impulse to roam might ensure wolves will survive as species, but it puts individuals at risk.
Wildlife officials noted that a collared wolf killed last year in Colorado had traveled 3,000 miles while roaming between Montana and northern Utah. It had crossed the Uinta Mountains on a single winter night, according to Hersey.
Echo was no different. After she was killed, Utah wildlife officials checked motion-triggered cameras rigged at spots where wildlife crosses highways in search of evidence she had entered Utah, Hersey said. Sure enough, three days before the Cedar Mountain sighting, a camera captured her image, with the collar clearly visible, about 50 miles away on U.S. Highway 89 near Kanab.