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

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Chris Bachman: Scientist silenced for telling the truth about wolves

Chris Bachman

Most of us are familiar with the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” This is the story of the scientist who cried “truth” and the price attached. Science is humanity’s tool for revealing the truth. Denying the truth does not change it.

Dr. Robert Wielgus is a man of honor and integrity whose voice was silenced, ironically, through an act of social predation. As director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University, his work with large carnivores was well respected. Dr. Wielgus’ and his students’ research found that wolves and livestock can coexist. Wolves do not naturally hunt livestock – not a single wolf predation occurred when livestock were kept a half-mile from an active wolf den site. Had this peer-reviewed science been observed, unnecessary cattle deaths and slaughter of the Profanity Peak Pack could have been avoided.

Many animals have evolved to birth their young in spring, a time of plentiful resources. In spring, wolf sociality revolves around birthing puppies. Wolves remain close to the den site during this time. Livestock also birth in the spring, however human intervention has altered this to late winter so calves are ready to graze by spring. The release of cow and young calf onto public land to graze coincides with the birthing of wolf puppies and increased energy needs for the pack.

Gray wolves hunt cooperatively in family units known as packs, a social unit composed of diverse individuals with a hierarchy and social structure that facilitates cooperative hunting. Cooperative hunting involves socially complex meat-eating animals working together, with division of labor and role specialization increasing the success of the group and the individual. Cooperative hunting offers increased access to food with decreased risk to the individual, and is linked to intelligence, social organization and the evolution of sociality. Sociality is the degree to which individuals in an animal population form cooperative societies.

Cooperative hunting is also called social predation. This behavior is not unique to gray wolves; it is a behavior ever-present in humans. It is sadly ironic that Dr. Wielgus, a predator aficionado, would fall victim to social predation. In human terms, social predators are individuals who thrive embracing the pack mentality, rarely having the courage to act alone. They prey on other humans and are widely known for the predictable traits of egocentrism and aggressive social mannerisms. Dr. Wielgus was depredated by social predators – agency professionals, legislators and community members – whose self-interests are more important than truth.

Dr. Wielgus questioned the actions of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and a public lands rancher that led to the slaughter of the Profanity Peak wolves. Livestock and salt blocks were placed within 200 yards of a wolf den on public land. Once discovered, no action was taken to remove the livestock, despite numerous warnings. Salt blocks were left in place, complicating the situation. When agency and industry refused to listen, Dr. Wielgus risked his reputation and went to the press and public. Once cattle were killed, seven wolves – adults and puppies – were slaughtered. This situation could have been avoided through adaptive husbandry practices and respect for nature. One rancher’s husbandry practices, coupled with WDFW’s lethal removal policy, is responsible for the killing of 15 of our recovering wolves.

Additionally, Dr. Wielgus’ research revealed that killing wolves does not lead to fewer predations on livestock; killing alters the sociality within the pack, impacts cooperative hunting, and can increase the number of breeding pairs and the overall number of wolves, leading to more predation on livestock. Killing a whole pack vacates habitat open to colonization by new wolves, also found to increase the number of livestock preyed upon. These findings do not align with WDFW’s lethal removal policy and do not support grazing cattle on our public lands. Industry and agency refused to recognize the scientific truth. Instead of adapting, they chose to kill the messenger.

Chris Bachman, a biologist and wolf advocate, is the wildlife program director at The Lands Council in Spokane. He also chairs the Eastern Washington Wolf Coalition.