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

Wolf researcher who accused WSU of silencing him gets $300K to settle lawsuit and go away

Rob Wielgus, director of the large carnivore lab at WSU, searches for a signal on a Colville National Forest road on May 31, 2017. He will resign after the spring semester. (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)
By Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times

A leading wolf researcher has agreed to leave Washington State University in return for $300,000 to settle a suit he brought over infringement of his academic freedom.

Robert Wielgus, director of the Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, pioneered research of wolf behavior in cattle country as the predators began their return to Washington.

Wielgus tracked the behavior of wolves and cattle and learned that the state’s policy of killing wolves that had preyed on cattle was likely to lead to more cattle predation, not less, because it destabilized the structure of wolf packs.

The research was unpopular with ranchers, who complained to lawmakers in the Washington State Legislature, who, in turn, cut Wielgus’ funding and removed him as principal investigator on his ongoing work, passing the funds through another researcher. It was a highly unusual move that eliminated Wielgus’ money for travel, speaking at conferences or for research in the summer, the peak field months for his work.

Wielgus filed a lawsuit this past year with the assistance of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, alleging the university had silenced and punished him for his research findings to placate politicians beholden to ranchers.

Emails obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request revealed that WSU administrators were worried funding for a new medical school was in jeopardy unless controversy in the Legislature and among ranchers over Wielgus was quelled.

“ … Highly ranked senators have said that the medical school and wolves are linked. If wolves continue to go poorly, there won’t be a new medical school,” Dan Coyne, lobbyist for WSU, wrote his colleague, Jim Jesernig, another WSU lobbyist, two days after the paper’s publication.

Jesernig, a well-connected former director of the state Department of Agriculture and former member of the state House and Senate, agreed with Coyne, his partner at the Coyne, Jesernig lobbying firm. “That’s my assessment as well,” Jesernig wrote in an email copied to WSU Director of State Relations Chris Mulick. “ … We are making the med school not doable.”

Replied Mulick, “We’re looking a wee bit like Sonny on the causeway here,” referring to a mob hit on a character in the movie “The Godfather.” “We’re getting in our own way on the med school enough as it is.”

Wielgus said his life was eventually made so miserable at the university that he just wanted to leave.

The settlement is paid from the state insurance liability account.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said the Wielgus incident showed that Washington has politicized its wolf policy and allowed politics into the halls of its land-grant university. “Most people believe academic freedom exists, particularly for tenured professors, but PEER is here to tell you that is not the case if there is any push back.

“Rob published in very prestigious journals. You would think they would be proud of him and have his back,” he said of WSU administrators. “Instead they had a knife in his back.”

Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications for WSU, replied to the Seattle Times with an email Monday that stated, in full:

“Washington State University has reached an agreement with Professor Rob Wielgus to settle all legal claims. As part of this agreement, both parties have committed to limiting their discussion of the situation to the following statement:

“Washington State University and Dr. Rob Wielgus have reached an agreement under which Dr. Wielgus will resign at the end of the spring 2018 semester and release all claims and employment rights in exchange for two payments totaling $300,000, with funds coming from the state. In reaching this agreement, neither party acknowledges any wrongdoing. Both parties view this as an opportunity to sever the employment relationship on mutually acceptable terms, while resolving disputed legal claims.

“In light of this agreement, neither I nor Dr. Wielgus are able to discuss the situation leading to this settlement.”

Wielgus did not return phone calls or an email to discuss the settlement Monday.

However, in a statement released to the media by PEER, he is quoted saying:

“After over 20 years of in-depth on-the-ground field research into the most iconic large carnivores of North America, the world-renowned Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at WSU will be closing its doors.

“This comes after years of political pressure from ranching interests and political interference by high ranking state politicians to halt research into carnivore interactions with livestock and the development of nonlethal strategies to combat depredation.”

He also said in a video just released by PEER that the university attacked him for his work at the behest of politicians opposed to his academic research.

Wielgus’ research indicated wolf kills of cattle are exceedingly rare. Most ranchers don’t experience trouble, and nonlethal deterrence methods have worked for many.

Though there is no hard and fast rule, some ranchers who try everything have had wolf trouble and some who trust luck have had none.

The rancher with the most trouble of any producer in the state in 2016 was grazing his cattle and had salt licks near a wolf den.

Wolves and cattle typically share the landscape, but having the salt lick so close to the den was an added attraction where wolves were continually present.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) was slow to find the den site, and the salt lick was not removed until after the first cattle started getting killed, a state report on the incident revealed.

By then the pattern was set, and it wasn’t long before the WDFW was called on by the rancher and its own policies to take out the Profanity Peak pack amid public outcry.

Members of the Wedge and Sherman packs were also killed by the state to protect the same rancher’s cattle.

The return of the gray wolf to its native landscape has particularly tried ranchers in the northeastern corner of Washington, where the overwhelming number of wolves in Washington roam.

Wolf populations in Washington number just more than 120 known wolves in 22 packs.

The state has tried a variety of approaches to the challenge of reintegrating the predator amid people not used to living with them. Wolves were exterminated in Washington by the 1930s after being shot, trapped and poisoned – in some cases by the ancestors of the same ranchers today once again contending with them, but now as a protected species.

Killing wolves particularly to protect grazing cattle on public lands has brought down the ire of wildlife advocates who want the wolves, a state endangered species, to thrive again in their native habitat. The animals are also protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act in the western half of Washington.