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Originally published Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Trail Mix | Ron Judd

Re-emergence of gray wolves no cause for high hysteria

My heart leapt a little. In a good way, one I almost had forgotten. Seeing those six wolf pups last week, photographed by a remote camera...

Seattle Times staff columnist

My heart leapt a little. In a good way, one I almost had forgotten.

Seeing those six wolf pups last week, photographed by a remote camera in their new home in the mountains of the central Methow Valley, gave me an inexplicable stir.

Maybe you felt it, too.

It's the sort of feeling you get when you see nature hitting the "reset" button on something man long ago bungled: in this case, the eradication of the gray wolf, long a top predator in the Cascade Mountains.

The Methow's "Lookout Pack," as it's being called, is the first verified litter — emphasis on "verified" — in this state since the gray wolf was hunted to extinction in the 1970s. But the pack, living in the hills above Twisp, Okanogan County, probably isn't the only one.

Few Methow residents seemed that surprised, in fact, when wildlife agents recently trapped, collared and rereleased two wolves believed to be the parents of the litter of pups. Nor when those pups, which were captured days later in a gentler way — by remote cameras, placed by the advocacy group Conservation Northwest. (See the photos and hear a tape of the wolves howling at www.conservationnw.org/)

"I've talked with people who say they've seen them at times over the past 20 years," says Joyce Campbell, a longtime valley resident who has covered the arrival of the Lookout Pack for the Methow Valley News. "They're saying, 'It's nothing new. People should just leave them alone.' "

Some people will. Others have a keen interest. The pack, confirmed last week through tissue tests to be pure canis lupus, with distant relatives in British Columbia and Alberta, arrived just as the state was working on a plan to manage the re-emergence of the wild wolf in the Cascades.

Lone, wandering wolves have long been spotted in the wild northeast corner of the state. It was considered a matter of when and where, not if a breeding pack would settle down. The wolves, as it turned out, have resettled the area faster than anyone expected.

Is that good news in the Methow? It's a bit too early for consensus. But Campbell and others say they've seen little of the lock-up-the-kids-and-bar-the-gate hysteria that has heralded the wolf's re-arrival in other western states.

In Montana, Idaho and other parts, the wolf was reintroduced — and thus seen as a tool of the government — that unthinking, elitist band of yahoos taking their cues from windsurfers and tree huggers.

Wolves, which feed on rodents, small and large mammals and yes, the occasional sheep or cow (for which ranchers can be compensated through a fund from the group Defenders of Wildlife, which recently extended it to Washington), became a flash point in a larger cultural war.

The hysteria in other states prompted Ed Bangs, the wolf-project manager for the feds, to warn Washingtonians to batten down the hatches once wolves finally settled down here.

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"Once you get a real wolf pack, you can't keep it a secret," Bangs told The Times last year. "There will be mobs with torches running through the streets on both sides."

To date, neither mobs nor torches have been observed in Twisp, the closest human enclave to the Lookout Pack — as well as what is widely rumored to be a separate pack, in the upper Twisp River drainage.

"People aren't flipping out about this; I haven't seen that," Campbell says. With some of the usual, wolves-are-here-to-kill-us irrational exceptions, most people in north-central Washington seem levelheaded about the prospect of living with wolves, which biologists expect to repopulate the Cascades, starting in the north and heading all the way south to the state line.

The state has a healthy appreciation for wildlife. And even residents who would rather they weren't here point to another reason our state's new wolves, perhaps, should be left to roam: "These wolves have come here on their own," notes Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest.

That, in itself, seems to make a lot of people OK with it, she says.

"There's an understanding that wolves have a place here; that this is their home."

The goal of a diverse group working on the state's wolf-management plan, which will go out for public review in coming months, is simple: Recover and restore wolf populations in their former mountain habitats across the state. Take steps to reassure and protect ranchers and other concerned community members, yes.

But let the wolves run free.

It's a win-win. Wolves can be wolves. And humans can experience the profound, gut-level awareness that they feel in grizzly country, or wolf country elsewhere: That humbling sense that there's something out there as smart — and in many ways, more capable — than we are.

That's natural. It's awesome. And it's high time.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Ron Judd's "Trail Mix" column, which appears Thursdays in Northwest Weekend, focuses on the Northwest great outdoors -- with just the right amount of real life thrown in for good measure.
rjudd@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8280

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