by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n a Monday in the middle of March last year Steve Zender and another state biologist were snowmobiling in the Selkirk Mountains looking for signs of lynx. They came across pine marten, then bobcat, then something far more potent.
"I saw this big hole in the snow and thought it was going to be a moose track," Zender says. "I looked down and immediately saw it was canid. You could see the claws."
It was a wolf. Probably a male. And in an area where other wolf sightings have been consistently reported during the last two or three years.
"It was not only a jolt, it was cool. This is exciting," Zender says.
Wolves are coming back to Eastern Washington. They are already here as lone wanderers, leaving evidence of their visits in the form of tracks, elk carcasses, or shadowy movement in forests from the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla to the Selkirks north of Newport.
The frequency of reported sightings is increasing, says Madonna Luers of Washington Fish and Wildlife in Spokane. She adds that solid confirmation is rare.
But Zender says central Pend Oreille County could be the launch site for wolf recovery in Washington because it seems that several wolves, maybe three, keep returning to the same general area around Baldy Mountain.
"We figure that sooner or later two of those wandering wolves of opposite sex will find each other in Washington and -- voila -- puppies," Luers says. "We are trying to plan for that."
In late January, the state fish and wildlife department named 18 people -- seven of them from Eastern Washington -- to a Wolf Working Group that has been told to come up with a management plan by June 2008.
Washington Fish and Wildlife recently sent about 80 people -- primarily biologists and other field workers -- through intensive training to spot wolf signs among coyotes or dogs or wolf-hybrids.
The wolf working group, which has already met once and will meet again May 2 in Ellensburg, faces some thorny issues.
"We have landowners and conservationists and sportsmen and producers so we can address a broad spectrum and say, 'OK, when wolves come how many packs do you want and where do you want them. And when and if -- and usually it's when -- there's depredation of livestock, how do we handle that?'" says Washington Fish and Wildlife spokesman Rocky Beach.
Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a proposal to remove the Rocky Mountain or Yellowstone wolves (the ones reintroduced to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) from the federal endangered species list. So far, the habitat circle drawn on the map for these wolves includes the eastern third of Washington, and the state must figure out how to adjust its own endangered listing.
"My impression is the group thinks about things and doesn't just react," says working group member Art Swannack, a farmer near St. John and president of the Washington Sheep Producers.
"I think we've got some cool heads," says Derrick Knowles, outreach coordinator for Conservation Northwest's Spokane office, who cites his own experiences working on thorny, collaborative issues in northeastern Washington.
"Hopefully I can help other conservationists understand some of the concerns ranchers have, and help ranchers and hunters understand conservation views," Knowles says. "The challenge is how many (wolves) and where. We want to maximize the environmental benefits of wolves and minimize the social and economic costs."
"There's an honest view that wolves are nice to have around," Swannack says, "but a wolf is a top-of-the-chain predator and very effective at taking down large animals and small. The (management) plan has got to be realistically workable for livestock producers."
Documentation in other states shows livestock deaths are more commonly caused by disease and weather, and that coyotes are the most common predator.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & olf kills almost always become hot-button news. And it doesn't help that 120 sheep in eastern Montana were killed by a single mystery wolf in about eight months last year. The wolf was finally shot and its DNA surprised everyone when it revealed it was not a wild wolf, but one that was bred and that had either escaped or was set loose.
Washington is trying to get ahead of the emotional lightning that has made wolf recovery a white-hot issue in places like Wyoming and Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter vowed this winter to be first in line to buy a permit to shoot a wolf if they are delisted.
Data from other states on the wolves' effect on big-game herds, forest and rangeland habitat and prevalence of livestock attacks will help Washington, Beach and others say.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 35 wolves in Idaho as part of a recovery program. Wildlife officials say the population has grown to an estimated 650 wolves in 71 packs, including more than 41 breeding pairs -- a recovery so robust it has actually changed the landscape in parts of Yellowstone.
These are the wolves at Washington's doorstep, coming to reclaim a spot in the wild hierarchy for the first time since they were nearly extirpated during the last century.
So where are they headed?
"Wolves are pretty adaptable. They can live anywhere there's food," says Tom Buckley of the USFWS in Spokane.
He refines this to say, "They can live anywhere they are allowed to live -- and that depends on human tolerance."
Unlike other predators, wolves come with the baggage of myth and emotion -- and those emotions can be raw.
"People have been asking me ever since they heard I was on it, 'What position are you going to take?'" says Ken Oliver, Pend Oreille County Commissioner and the only politician on the wolf working group.
Oliver says he's not taking any position other than the pragmatic. "They are coming over the (Idaho) panhandle into northeastern Washington looking for their new territory and we have to deal with it," he says. "My main goal is to work this out so all parties are in pretty willing agreement."
Call wolf sightings into the Washington Wolf Hotline: 888-584-9038