SEATTLE – Even after scouring muddy logging roads for tracks and dousing the ground with canine urine, Scott Fisher didn't get his hopes up.
The state biologist was sure that finding one of the West's most mysterious predators skulking about the forests of Pend Oreille County in northeastern Washington would, as usual, prove elusive.
But late last month Fisher flipped open his laptop and downloaded pictures from a camera he had hung from a tree. There on the first frame were two eyes buried in a puff of dark fur.
A gray wolf.
"We weren't surprised it was there, just that we caught it on camera," said Fisher, a biologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. "It's so much better to be lucky than good."
Though Fisher's photo wasn't definitive, several experts agree it was probably a wild wolf, wandering through from Idaho or Montana. And it's certainly not the first evidence that wolves have been traipsing through the Evergreen State.
But state officials say it's a reminder that it's only a matter of time before Canis lupis eventually makes its way back to Washington for good. With the federal government now slowly moving toward removing the gray wolves of the Rocky Mountains from the endangered-species list, state officials have been making plans to manage the predators when they finally take up residence here.
"The message is that wolves are in their pre-colonization stage," said Rocky Beach, who oversees nongame animals for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We've had several wolves make forays into the state. We're getting more reports of wolves, both anecdotally and from our own people. They haven't set up shop and started making packs. But they're coming."
Though wolf experts say some wolf reports are probably false, state biologists believe legitimate sightings have been increasing for several years. But they can't be sure.
"We interview loggers or hunters or hikers, and they all say they've been seeing wolves all winter," said Steve Zender, another wildlife-department biologist. "I don't dispute that. They see tracks, I've seen tracks, but they could be wolf-dog hybrids."
Ed Bangs, who oversees wolf recovery for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, cautions: "People are suggestible. If you went to Arkansas and said, 'Let me know if you see any wolves,' you'd get plenty of calls."
And Bangs said it could be a year — or 10 — before a breeding pack sets up house in Washington.
"Please, no one equate a picture of one wolf to mean you're going to have packs right away," he stressed.
"Until you have a breeding pair, it's highly entertaining, very interesting, but biologically meaningless. Once you get a real wolf pack, you can't keep it a secret: There will be mobs with torches running through the streets on both sides."
That's why state officials are preparing now.
Wolves were eliminated from the West 70 years ago by hunters and trappers who regarded them as dangerous pests that threatened livestock and people, though there has never been a documented case of a wild wolf killing a human in the United States.
Environmentalists say wolves have gotten a bad rep, and are actually an important part of a healthy wild food chain. Federal efforts to return the species to Idaho, Montana and Yellowstone National Park have been wildly successful. More than 600 wolves now reside in Idaho alone.
But the creatures still evoke powerful reactions. Some ranchers angrily predict the animals will kill their livestock. Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter recently said he hoped hunters would cull the state's wolf population to 100, and that he wanted to shoot one himself.
With that mood, some environmentalists fear loss of federal protection will result in renewed extirpation of the species.
In a wolf pack, only the dominant pair mates. That leaves younger wolves to roam to new areas — sometimes hundreds of miles — in search of prey and mates. So Washington biologists presume some wolves will come to permanently settle the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington, and Pend Oreille County, where Fisher's camera captured the visitor.
In Washington, a group of state officials, hunters, ranchers, environmentalists and biologists have just begun discussing how Washington might sustain a wolf population that can coexist with people. A series of public meetings is planned later this year. Officials expect interest to be high.
"Of all of the issues I've dealt with — from killer whales to butterflies — this is certainly the most polarizing," Beach said. "No one is ambivalent."
Meanwhile, biologists including Fisher and Zender are hoping to learn how many wolves are wandering the northeast part of the state.
Zender stashed cameras off dirt roads and drainages in the Colville National Forest, and has captured two partial images of a gray and white canine — one sniffing the ground, the other walking away.
Fisher set up his cameras 10 miles away, on state trust land. Two days later, it made the convincing photographs. Biologists think the pictures all show the same animal.
By themselves, the pictures do little to advance the understanding of wolves in Washington. But if cameras later capture a different wolf, it may help biologists gauge whether there is a mating pair here, the first real sign that wolves are back.
That possibility is why the state is right to plan now, Bangs said.
"Once you get the first wolf killing a senator's calf, that's not the time to be discussing what to do," he said.