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Gray wolf's death raises questions

Published September 19, 2006 12:33 am

Some say the animal, caught in a leg-hold trap, shouldn't have died in such a limited time
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As federal wildlife officials continue to investigate circumstances surrounding the death of a rare gray wolf in Box Elder County last week, a Salt Lake City-based wolf advocacy group also is asking questions.

Kirk Robinson, director of the Utah Wolf Forum, said Monday that the leg-hold trap the wolf was found in north of Tremonton should not have, by itself, killed the animal, which is federally protected under under the Endangered Species Act.

Robinson wondered if the trapper - still unidentified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - was checking the traps every 48 hours as required by law.

"A wolf shouldn't die in 48 hours in a trap, so I'm a little skeptical about this," he said.

Wildlife officials with knowledge of the situation say that the wolf, a 3-year-old male, initially went unseen by the trapper because the animal had dragged the leg-hold and the rock it was attached to approximately 200 yards from the trap's original location.

The trapper didn't find the wolf and the trap, which was set for coyotes, until the next inspection. By then the wolf was dead. The trapper alerted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after making the discovery.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswomen Diane Katzenberger would neither confirm nor deny details of the investigation, which she said is continuing.

"They do not want to compromise the review as it is going on," she said.

Forensic and genetic tests on the wolf also have yet to be completed. Through genetic testing, federal officials hope to pinpoint where the wolf came from. The prevailing theory is that the wolf hailed from a pack in the Yellowstone ecosystem, or another in central Idaho.

The death of the wolf marked the second confirmed presence of Canis lupus in northern Utah in the past four years.

A live gray wolf was found in a leg-hold trap in the mountains north of Morgan in December of 2002.

That wolf, which had a radio collar, came from the Druid pack in Yellowstone National Park. The wolf discovered Sept. 10 had no collar or identifying tag.

Robinson, of the Utah Wolf Forum, says that the trapper did comply with federal regulations by contacting the Fish and Wildlife Service after discovering the wolf. But he still wonders what took so long to make the discovery.

"Presumably, a competent trapper would look around for the rock that the trap was allegedly chained to," he said. "You'd think he would have noticed there was a drag mark, or maybe even blood or hair on the ground. So I think questions need to be asked."

The discovery of the live wolf in 2002 set off a charged debate in Utah about the reintroduction of wolves here.

It eventually culminated with the creation of the state's first wolf management plan last year.

Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been required to submit wolf management plans to the Fish and Wildlife Service as a prelude to removing the species from the endangered list in those states. Wyoming's plan has been rejected by the agency because it classifies wolves as predators, allowing them to be shot on public lands by ranchers.

Utah's plan, which is voluntary at this point, hews closely to the Wyoming plan.

Katzenberger of the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was unknown when the tests or investigation would be completed.

jbaird@sltrib.com