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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I just want out’: Large carnivore conservation lab director opens up about relationship with WSU

Rob Wielgus is director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University. (COURTESY OF KAY MORRIS / COURTESY OF KAY MORRIS)
By Taylor Nadauld Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Robert Wielgus’s black motorcycle jacket, bike chain necklace, skull-shaped ring and black cowboy hat stand out on a subdued Tuesday morning in a Moscow coffee shop.

Wielgus made the town his home about three years ago after moving from Pullman. It was around the same time he was beginning his research on wolves. He has since been at the center of a whirlwind of conflict with his employer, Washington State University.

“I much prefer Moscow than Pullman,” Wielgus said. “I’m a pariah in Pullman. I’m like plutonium. No one will go near me.”

Wielgus, a WSU professor and director of the university’s large carnivore conservation lab, is calm and to-the-point while speaking of his broken relationship with WSU, which the professor filed a complaint against last year, alleging the university had seriously damaged his academic career through suppression, condemnation and reprisal after he made remarks critical of a cattle rancher and the state’s subsequent removal of a wolf pack.

According to WSU Vice President of Marketing and Communication Phil Weiler, WSU’s lawyers and Wielgus’s lawyers have a mediation meeting scheduled for this Tuesday. Wielgus, 60, is asking for early retirement in a severance package. In a perfect world, he said he would also like a public retraction of WSU’s disavowal of his statements regarding the Profanity Peak wolf pack. Most of all, he just wants out.

“I just want a severance package, and I want to be free from their tyranny,” Wielgus said of WSU.

Wielgus told the Daily News the stress of his ongoing battle with WSU has affected his health. His reputation, he said, has been destroyed. As his daughter considers attending WSU, Wielgus hopes she will consider the University of Idaho instead.

“They don’t care about any of that stuff,” Wielgus said of WSU. “They’ll completely destroy a person’s life and his family’s life.”

Weiler would not respond to every claim made by Wielgus about WSU, citing pending litigation, but said Wielgus was promoted to full professor by the university in 2017, something Weiler called a “very big deal in the academy.”

“That is the goal of every faculty member to make full professor,” Weiler said.

The decision did not make Wielgus feel any more supported by the university, though. He said the decision to promote comes from outside votes, not WSU. He said his lab remains effectively shut down, as he has not been able to obtain grant money since his fallout with the university.

Wielgus’s relationship with WSU has not always been so strained. He claims the late Elson S. Floyd, WSU president from 2007 to 2015, backed him and his research even in the face of political attacks; and they came.

Grizzly bears, lynxes, cougars; Wielgus has studied them all. He was appointed program leader for wolf and livestock research and extension by the Washington state Legislature in 2013. Throughout his entire career, he said, no other animal has been as politicized as the wolf.

Gary Koehler, a retired research scientist for carnivore investigations at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, supervised several grad students who worked under Wielgus on various projects that centered on cougars, black bears and lynxes.

He called the nature of criticism and consequences Wielgus faced by WSU “totally inappropriate” and said WSU stepped out of line with respect to criticizing Wielgus’s findings and observations on wolves.

“Research is what it is, and the findings are what they are,” Koehler told the Daily News. “For administration to criticize a scientist that is working for them is really out of place. It infringes on academic freedom and the scientific process.”

Wielgus’s research has long been controversial, on both sides of the political aisle. Some of his research on grizzly bears did not go over well with the Democratic left, he said. His research on wolves did not go well with the right. He especially faced criticism from Washington Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, whom Wielgus claims, in response to his research, threatened to vote against the WSU Medical School as WSU was trying to push it through the legislature.

Wielgus said his relationship with WSU, the situation with his lab and the backing of his research made a 180-degree turn when current President Kirk Schulz took over.

By 2016, Wielgus had submitted his now infamous claim that a Washington cattle rancher purposefully lured his livestock directly on top of a wolves’ den site. WSU and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences promptly disavowed Wielgus’s claim and apologized to the public in a press release issued Aug. 31, 2016.

The Daily News reported in May last year that Wielgus appeared to have been cleared of an accusation by the university that he misused state resources by using his WSU email for lobbying activities, though there was apparently evidence found that his use of email may have been a misuse of state resources in “regard to the content of the messaging and repeated recommendations from management to use private resources related to the activity in questions.”

All of this, Wielgus said, has led at least half a dozen WSU employees to be “terrified” of retaliation by the university. Wielgus recalled being fearful himself in the heat of it all.

“Going to work gives me PTSD,” Wielgus said. “You know, what are they going to do next? What phony charges will they bring up against me next time?”

Wielgus was one of more than 1,000 current and former WSU faculty and students to sign a petition that was delivered to Schulz in December, calling on WSU to significantly cut its adminstrators’ salaries in response to department-wide budget cuts. Wielgus said he has considered starting a petition of his own for a vote of no confidence against Schulz. In the meantime, he awaits his Tuesday mediation meeting with the university.