TWISP, Wash. -- The excitement over the first wolf pack to move into Washington's northern Cascade Mountains has died down with the deaths of several of the animals.
Three members of a Twisp-area ranching family are under indictment in connection with the killing of two or more of the wolves.
It's enough to make just the topic of wolves force whole communities to choose sides.
In the Twisp River Canyon, biologist and predator expert Scott Fitkins finds close encounters. A year ago, Fitkin's twilight howls would be answered by the Lookout Mountain wolfpack. But with two or more of the wolves now gone, allegedly at the hands of poachers, there is no response. The once promising pack lost its alpha female and other productive members.
"We're in a low spot for the Lookout pack," said Fitkins. "Certainly we don't think we've got any breeding this year, but territories tend to remain occupied over time. So we're optimistic over time this area will persist, maybe with new members."
But for others, a dead wolf is a good wolf. And the disappearing Lookout pack is a relief.
The vast Okanogan valleys were settled by ranchers a century ago. A lot has changed for them over the years. But while they are reluctant to talk to strangers about some of their own being charged with killing federally protected wolves, there are some conspiracy theories.
State and federal biologists believe the wolves naturally migrated to the deer-rich region. Ranchers and others have their doubts, and some suspect the wolves were planted there.
"Wolves, spotted owl, wolverine, it doesn't matter. My opinion is, these are just tools that they're using to close up more access to public property," says one rancher.
Rules to protect endangered species have generated a sort of friendly friction between government agencies and some land owners.
"I think it's a love-hate relationship," laughs a local man. "We love to hate each other."
It's a very thin line that separates the government and private landowners in the North Cascades. Because they absolutely have no problem going through these fences, the wolves cross the line into the single most important issue for the region -- property rights.
"I think we're real uncomfortable with the wolves here," says rancher Vic Stokes. "You know as a rancher I'm real uncomfortable, it's something totally foreign to what I grew up with."
The culture in the area has always been protect the property, protect the herd. It's created a united but not a unanimous opposition to the wolves.
"I'm not afraid of these wolves and I'm not afraid of them being here and I'm not afraid for my stock," says Twisp ranch hand Michael Rothgeb.
There are those who feel ranching and wolves are not necessarily exclusive of each other, and that wolves are being blamed for things they've never done.
"They are not going to wipe out the deer population. They're not going to attack people, it's very unlikely," says another rancher.
Other than a few images on remote cameras, hardly anyone here has ever seen or even heard a wolf.
Biologists believe there are at least two members of the lookout pack still roaming the North Cascades. But in the meantime, four other packs have established themselves in Washington state.