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Originally published Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Fate of state's first gray-wolf pack unclear

It's been just 2-1/2 years since Canis lupus took up residence in the rolling hills above Eastern Washington's Methow Valley. But the gray wolf's return to Washington after a 70-year absence has not exactly gone as most expected. At this point, it's not even clear if the state's first pack, the Methow's Lookout Pack, still exists.

Seattle Times environment reporter

It's been just 2 ½ years since Canis lupus took up residence in the rolling hills above Eastern Washington's Methow Valley.

But the gray wolf's return to Washington after a 70-year absence has not exactly gone as most expected. At this point, it's not even clear if the state's first pack, the Methow's Lookout Pack, still exists.

Since the wolves first returned, the pack's breeding female disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The carcass of another dead gray wolf was found dumped near the highway in a neighboring county. And the pelt from a third wolf was found by a FedEx worker after an Okanogan County resident tried to ship a bloody, leaking box to Canada. Wildlife cops searching a suspect's home in that case also found photographs of what may be a fourth dead canine.

"We don't know how many [Lookout Pack] wolves are left," said Gary Wiles, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The pack seemed to more or less break up after the female vanished."

Later this year, state officials expect to finish a detailed proposal on how they plan to manage the wolf's recovery in Washington. There remains another breeding pack in the state's northeast corner, in Pend Oreille County, and other wolves wander between Washington and British Columbia and Idaho.

Meanwhile, along the state's southeast border with Oregon, researchers will be tracking wolves this summer, hoping to find another pack there.

But while federal agents already have killed two Oregon wolves after they seemed to develop a taste for livestock, actual conflicts in Washington remain rare.

"We've had only one livestock issue, in Stevens County," Wiles said. "Oregon has had quite a bit of trouble. They've had a number of depredations down there."

Washington ranchers remain wary.

It is illegal to kill the federally protected species, but Jack Field, with the Washington Cattlemen's Association, wants to ensure that ranchers can shoot wolves if they see the canines eating their animals.

He fears ranchers in that situation will feel compelled to take matters into their own hands, and "if we're not careful we're going to make a lot of hardworking folks criminals."

Still, the state's only direct conflict with wolves thus far seems to have come from humans.

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"We're starting to see that we already have a pretty serious poaching problem," said Jasmine Minbashian, with the environmental group Conservation Northwest. "It's just such a tragic story. A few years ago we were filled with so much hope. Now we're seeing this."

The most notorious incident came to light in 2009, when state and federal agents acknowledged they were investigating a father and son near Twisp, Okanogan County, after a FedEx worker discovered a bloody pelt in a package, according to a search-warrant affidavit. The son told investigators that he shot a wolf after it had gotten caught in a barbed-wire fence. It remains unclear whether one wolf died, or two.

Neither man has been charged with the killing, but both were charged last year in Okanogan County Superior Court with poaching bear and other game, based on information obtained during a search of their computers. The wolf-poaching case is still under investigation.

Late last month Mike Cenci, deputy chief of law enforcement for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, acknowledged yet another unrelated wolf-poaching case had been under investigation for about 18 months.

"About a year and a half ago, we received a tip that a wolf had been poached on the east side of the mountains and that the carcass was dumped in eastern Skagit County," Cenci said. "Part by hard work and part by miracle, officers were able to recover the carcass, which was skinned and had a bullet hole in it."

Lab work showed it was an adult gray wolf, but investigators have not yet determined through genetic tests from which pack it came.

Most problematic for the Lookout Pack itself is the disappearance of the alpha female. She hasn't been seen since last summer. And she had been wearing a radio collar that would alert biologists if she died.

"Because it puts out a different signal if the animal is still for some time, there was speculation that something destroyed the radio collar — like a shotgun blast," Wiles said.

Without her, the pack's social structure fractured and the animals appeared to go off on their own.

"We never had a great handle on how many there were," said John Rohrer, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Methow Valley. "Now it's even harder. We're relying on a couple sightings, which suggests there are two or three animals left traveling together."

Minbashian, at least, is looking toward spring, hoping a Lookout wolf has found a new mate and that biologists stumble on newborns.

"It's really become a treasure hunt," she said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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