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Posted: 10:44 PM- Wolves may finally be making a permanent home in the Beehive State for the first time since the Great Depression era.
While sightings of individual wolves in Utah have been steady for years, particularly since the reintroduction of the animals at Yellowstone National Park, the endangered animals generally haven't stayed in state. Instead, they've crossed into Utah and then back into Wyoming, Montana or Idaho, where larger wolf populations reside.
But a recent report of five wolves spotted near the Dutch John Airport in Daggett County have wildlife experts wondering if a wolf pack is establishing territory in Utah, said Kevin Bunnell, mammals program director for the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
"We do think it was a credible sighting and we've done a lot of follow up to try to confirm," Bunnell said today.
A pilot headed to Dutch John Airport spotted what he believed to be three gray and two black wolves traveling in a remote section of the county at the end of February, said Bunnell.
The pilot's sighting prompted DWR employees to canvass the area in search of wolves tagged with radio collars, which would confirm the animals had wandered over from a neighboring state.
The DWR didn't find any wolves, but they did find a set of tracks and received a response to a digital howl recording the night after the pilot's sighting, Bunnell said.
Now the DWR is monitoring land around the Flaming Gorge Reservoir near the Utah-Wyoming border for evidence that the wolves have set up shop in-state.
Employees put out road kill deer and elk carcasses as bait and are monitoring them to see if the wolves have eaten any. Wolves breed around April 1, and workers are surveying to see if any wolves have made dens in Utah, Bunnell said.
"Chances are we'll find them at that point, because they are tied to that den site," he said. "It's kind of a wait-and-see game."
Three years ago the DWR worked with ranchers, sportsmen and wolf advocates to establish a wolf management plan to prepare for wolves migrating into Utah from surrounding states. The plan's goal aimed to study and protect wolves as they move into Utah while preventing livestock depredation and compensating ranchers whose livestock fall prey to wolves.
News of the possibility of wolves making Utah a permanent home was met by enthusiasm from wolf advocates today.
"If it's true that there's a pack here, then I say great. Let's welcome them here," said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, a wildlife advocacy group based in Salt Lake City.
"This is a place, the Uintah Mountains, where there used to be wolves and wolves can exist. I think they belong there."
Utah's last individual wolf was killed in San Juan in 1930, Bunnell said. Between 1917 and 1930 there were 167 wolves killed. The last known wolf pack roamed the state in making the late 1920s or 1930.
The animals were eliminated from Utah to protect ranchers' livestock. Many sportsmen and ranchers in Utah are opposed to any protection for the animals, saying wolves kill valuable livestock and prey for hunters.