Few animals stir such controversy as Canis lupus, the gray wolf. A fearsome hunter that quickly took a liking to newborn calves and sheep as the West became settled, its territory stretched across the North American continent. Decades of determined eradication efforts—often led by ranchers who’d lost stock—put the canny predator on the edge of virtual extinction.

In most of the Lower 48 states, wolf packs have been nonexistent for the latter half of the 20th century. And that’s exactly the way most cattle ranchers wanted it.

In 2008, however, a wolf breeding pair was released into in the hills above Eastern Washington’s Methow Valley. But the wolf's return to the state after a 70 years has not exactly gone as wildlife biologists and environmentalists hoped., according to a story in the Seattle Times newspaper. At this point, it is unclear if the Methow Lookout Pack, as it was named, even 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,” according to the newspaper. Rangers who were searching a suspect’s home in that case also found photographs of what looked to be a fourth dead wolf.

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

The alpha female, who was wearing a radio collar that would alert biologists if she died, hasn't been seen since last summer. “Because [the collar] 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 rest of the pack has apparently gone off on its own.

In the northeast corner of the state, in Pend Oreille County, another breeding pack remains, and other wolves, either individually and collectively, wander across the rugged, forested borders between Washington, British Columbia and Idaho. State officials are still working a detailed proposal of how to manage the overall recovery of wolves in Washington

Trouble down south
Along the Washington’s southeastern border with Oregon, researchers plan to track wolves this summer, hoping to find another pack there. Federal agents have already have killed two wolves in Oregon after they began to prey on livestock, which is part of the agreement put in place with ranchers in states where wolves have been re-introduced. Conflicts between ranchers and wolves in Washington had bee rare.

“We've had only one livestock issue, in Stevens County,” Wiles told the newspaper. “Oregon has had quite a bit of trouble. They’ve had a number of depredations down there.”

Nationwide, the gray wolf remains on the federal Endangered Species List. The penalty for illegally killing a wolf is up to one year in jail and up to a $100,000 fine.

In Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County last week, rancher Karl Patton appears to have lost another calf to a wolf attack, according to the Wallowa County Chieftain newspaper. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Vic Coggins checked the site of the kill on Patton’s property Feb. 15.

The suspected attack came shortly after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials had held a public meeting to brief ranchers and farmers in the area. “We’re expecting to have some problems this spring, and that’s why we’re here,” biologist John Stephenson told the crowd of about 50.

Ranchers are required to contact the local sheriff’s office first when they find dead livestock. After an investigation by the proper authorities to confirm the wolf kill, ranchers can qualify for federal wolf depredation compensation payments.

Even so, Washington ranchers remain wary about re-introducing the wolf. Jack Field, president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, whose slogan is to “promote innovative rangeland and livestock management and preserve the cattle industry in Washington,” said he wants to ensure that ranchers can shoot wolves if they see the canines attacking their herd.

Field told the Seattle Times that he is afraid ranchers in that situation would feel compelled to take matters into their own hands. “If we're not careful we're going to make a lot of hardworking folks criminals,” he said.

Environmentalists see it differently.

“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 occurred in 2009, when state and federal agents acknowledged they were investigating a father and son near Twisp, Wash., after a FedEx worker discovered a bloody pelt in a package, according to a search warrant papers. 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, according to the newspaper.

Both men were charged last year in Okanogan County Superior Court with poaching bear and other game. Neither man was charged with killing a wolf.

And neither man has anything to do with ranching.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator