U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This April 18, 2008 file photo shows a gray wolf. A gray wolf that was accidentally shot by a hunter in Utah was the same one seen in the Grand Canyon area last year, federal wildlife officials said Wednesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — A gray wolf that was accidentally shot by a hunter in Utah was the same one seen in the Grand Canyon area last year, federal wildlife officials said Wednesday.

DNA tests confirm the 3-year-old female killed in late December was the first wolf seen in northern Arizona in more than 70 years, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a news release.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Steve Segin said geneticists at the University of Idaho compared the DNA from the northern gray wolf killed in southwestern Utah with samples taken from the wolf seen near the Grand Canyon last fall.

Officials have said the Utah hunter mistook the wolf for a coyote. Wolves are protected in Utah under the Endangered Species Act, and officials are investigating the death.

The wolf had worn a radio collar since January 2014.

The investigation into its death is ongoing, Segin said. It's not clear yet what penalties the hunter could face for killing the animal.

The hunter reached out to Utah state officials after realizing the error, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Martinez said in December. The hunter was legally allowed to hunt coyotes, which are not protected in Utah, Martinez said.

Wildlife advocacy groups have called the wolf's death heartbreaking. They said the animal could have helped wolves naturally recover in remote regions of Utah and neighboring states.

Wolves can travel thousands of miles for food and mates. Gray wolves had been spotted as far south as Colorado until the Arizona wolf was confirmed. Gray wolves were last spotted in the Grand Canyon area in the 1940s.

In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service lifted protections for the wolves in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes. But a federal judge recently reinstated the protections after wildlife advocates in Wyoming sued.

The Center for Biological Diversity has documented 11 cases since 1981 where hunters told wildlife officials they had shot a wolf thinking it was a coyote.