The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that an adult gray wolf was found dead in a leghold trap on private land in the hills north of Tremonton, in Box Elder County.
The 3-year-old male was discovered Sunday by a trapper who was contracted to do predator control work for the property owner. The wolf's remains have since been shipped to Ashland, Ore., where they are undergoing genetic tests to determine the animal's lineage.
"We think the little guy probably dispersed from the Yellowstone or central Idaho packs and wandered down," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Sharon Rose. "Once the [trapper] found the wolf, he called wildlife services. He was doing coyote management. He wasn't expecting to find a wolf."
The discovery of the endangered Canis lupis comes nearly four years after another wolf was found alive in a leghold trap in the mountains north of Morgan. It marked the first confirmed sighting of a wolf in the Beehive State in more than 70 years and started environmentalists and biologists pondering how to welcome wolves back to the state.
At the same time, the prospect alarmed ranchers and hunters. The debate led to a chain of events that culminated last year with creation of the state's first wolf management plan.
Back in November 2002, a second set of tracks was found at the scene, though it was never conclusively linked to another wolf. But the trapped wolf was quickly identified by its radio collar and eventually returned to its home with the Druid Pack in northeastern Yellowstone National Park.
The wolf found Sunday, which was grey with black flecks, had no collar or identifying tag. All evidence at the scene indicated the wolf was traveling alone.
"There were no predations or previous sightings," Rose said. "All indications are that this was a lone individual."
Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment further on the circumstances around the wolf's death, citing an ongoing investigation.
Utah wildlife officials were not surprised by Sunday's discovery. In addition to the 2002 capture, two wolves that had preyed on sheep in the hills east of Bear Lake across the state line in Wyoming were shot and killed by federal Wildlife Service agents in March of 2003. And there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings of wolves in northern Utah dating back to 2000.
"This is why we created a wolf management plan - because we anticipate that they are going to start showing up," said Kevin Bunnell, mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
The DWR, in conjunction with various interested groups, put together a wolf management plan in 2005 after a contentious series of meetings. Wolf advocates were unhappy with the final plan, arguing that ranchers were given too much leeway in when and how they could shoot wolves harassing their livestock.
The northern gray wolf is currently afforded federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but Utah could conceivably take over wolf management in the future if the species reestablishes itself in the state.
Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have all completed mandatory wolf management plans, though Wyoming's has been rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service and is currently in litigation. Utah's plan is voluntary.
If wolves do attempt to resettle in Utah, it will probably be in the northern part of the state, given its proximity to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
"You look at those corridors, and they are pretty logical routes that animals follow down into Morgan and Rich counties," said Phil Douglas, the DWR's outreach manager for the northern region.