"We are still investigating," DWR director Greg Sheehan said, "but it seems initially that it was a case of mistaken identity."
Sheehan said the hunter could face citations for killing the animal, federally protected in that part of Utah under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish & Wildlife Service will conduct the probe.
The weekend shooting is the first documented killing of a gray wolf in Utah by a hunter since officials reintroduced the animals into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s.
A 3-year-old male wolf was found dead in a leg-hold trap in Box Elder County in 2006. Another collared male wolf was found alive in a trap near Morgan in 2002 and taken back to Yellowstone.
"This is a very sad day for wolf conservation and for Utah," said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Conservancy. "All competent wildlife biologists already know that coyote hunting, including our state bounty program, is ineffective, and therefore a waste of money — and now we see that it is also a threat to other wildlife and to wolf recovery."
Utah offers a $50 bounty for coyotes under the Mule Deer Preservation Act. In the second year of the program, which concluded June 30, more than 7,000 coyotes were turned in for the monetary reward.
Earlier this month, someone took a picture of what appears to be a wolf crossing Highway 14 east of Cedar City. It is possible, Sheehan said, that the wolf killed Sunday was the same animal spotted in Cedar Canyon and the Grand Canyon.
The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity says the proximity of Beaver to the North Rim makes it likely that the dead wolf, named Echo in an online naming contest, came from the Grand Canyon area.
"It's heartbreaking that another far-wandering wolf has been cut down with a fatal gunshot," the center's Michael Robinson said in a release. "This female wolf could have helped wolves naturally recover in remote regions of Utah and neighboring states. Federal authorities need to conduct a full investigation into this latest killing, which is part of a disturbing pattern."
Biologists say the collars on the animal killed Sunday and the Grand Canyon wolf appear to be different.
In August, wildlife officials confirmed a wolf sighting in northeastern Utah's Uinta Mountains. That animal, believed to be a large male that had been collared near Canada's border with Idaho, has not been spotted since September. His radio collar was failing at the time and there have been no new sightings of that wolf.