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Reports of wolf activity in Utah are trending up this year, according to state records, and already have reached the previous high of 15, set in 2003.

Last year there were nine reports statewide, after seven in 2008.

The dispersal of wolves from well-established populations in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park has led Western members of Congress to push measures that would allow states to manage the predators.

"It's time to let state wildlife professionals do their job," Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said, "and balance the needs of predator and prey to maintain a healthy balance."

Matheson and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, this week co-sponsored a bill that would delist the gray wolf, while a bipartisan group of Western senators, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is discussing a similar proposal.

The legislation comes in response to a recent federal court ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't have the authority to remove wolves from the endangered-species list on a state-by-state basis — as it had done in Montana and Idaho to allow hunts in those states last year.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources catalogs wolf encounters that the public reports, although it is unclear how many sightings are legitimate signs of the wilderness icon, which was driven from the West in the past century before making a comeback in the northern Rockies after the government started restocking efforts in 1995.

During the past decade, state biologists have verified fewer than 10 reports submitted by the public, according to DWR mammals-program coordinator Kevin Bunnell. Federal agriculture officials charged with controlling problem wolves — those that eat or harass livestock — have confirmed a half-dozen more.

It's clear that roaming individual wolves from Idaho and Wyoming frequent northern Utah, Bunnell said, but not so clear that they have gotten comfortable here.

"We haven't seen any evidence of breeding or of packs," he said. Every confirmed sighting to date was solo.

That's not to say the public hasn't reported multiple wolves roaming together, including some of the most recent reports this summer, from the Uintas. On July 12, someone reported seeing four wolves at once on the north side of Lily Lake, near the Mirror Lake Highway east of Kamas. The same person reported seeing a single wolf in the same area the next morning.

"We don't know if they were wolves or coyotes," DWR sensitive-species biologist Masako Wright said after fielding the report.

Then, on Sunday, Salt Lake City resident Dan McLaughlin was settled in at his campfire after a day of fishing at Washington Lake, just west of Lily Lake, when he heard a ruckus that thrilled him and chilled a friend.

"I heard a howl," he said, followed by a response. And then, between the two howlers, shorter yelps that he called "dialogue."

"It got really, really loud," he said. "It was a bunch of animals. It was so loud that I thought it was people at first." A campground was nearby, but empty.

The animals sounded as if they were moving toward the camp, which McLaughlin said led his friend to run for a gun. Expecting that an attack was unlikely, McLaughlin made a muffled shout telling him instead to get in the vehicle and watch. He believes the wolves heard him because they immediately halted their chatter and came no closer.

McLaughlin, a recent environmental-studies graduate of the University of Utah, said he has extensive outdoor experience around coyotes and wild dogs, and that he is sure these were neither. He stood eight years ago with a Yellowstone ranger and listened to wolves in the park's Nez Perce pack.

"This," he said, "sounded just like that."

State biologists check up on only those reports they deem most credible, based on what people report seeing or hearing and whether they are experienced with wolves or have lived in a wolf-dense place such as Alaska. They have not yet followed up on the Uinta reports, and Wright was skeptical of one part: the numbers.

"With Dan's [report]," she said, "he said there may be 10 to 15 wolves howling at each other. If that many wolves are there, I'd probably get a lot more reports."

Most of this year's reports, obtained through an open-records request, have been well north of the Uintas — three in Morgan County, one in Weber County, three in Cache County and one in Rich County — though there were five from Summit County. Another report came from Salt Lake County, up City Creek, and one came from southern Utah, in Iron County. Bunnell said most confirmed sightings have been in counties bordering Idaho and Wyoming.

Two wolves were killed after attacking Utah livestock this summer — one by government trappers in Rich County and one by a Utah ranch hand who followed it into Idaho. Bunnell said the one killed in Idaho appears to have the physical attributes of a wolf-dog hybrid — possibly an escaped pet — though a genetic test is pending.

Tribune reporters Matt Canham and Nate Carlisle contributed to this report. —

Utahns spotting more wolves

2010 • 15*

2009 • 9

2008 • 7

2007 • 7

2006 • 10

2005 • 2

2004 • 6

2003 • 15

2002 • 5

* 2010 number subject to increase in remaining months.

Source • Utah Division of Wildlife Resources