The WDFW carried on most of the summer and into the fall killing wolves, eventually taking the lives of six adults and a pup in the pack. The department confirmed the pack killed five Diamond M calves and one cow from another ranch.
For all the controversy, Wielgus said he is still optimistic wolves will recover from local extinction in Washington. He doesn’t think the same for himself.
The news release disavowing his statements was never shown to him, Wielgus said, and misconstrued a short conversation by phone between him and Mittelhammer.
While he has since attained tenure, Wielgus said he no longer wants to work at the university. “They called me a liar and ruined my career.”
Robert Wielgus gets ready to listen for the radio collar on the sole surviving adult of the Profanity Peak pack, mostly killed off by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife last summer for killing ranchers’ cattle. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Wielgus’ conflicts with the university would continue, after he emailed a news release reporting the latest findings from his lab to the state’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG) and others as the group debated wolf policy for 2017.
Wolf kills of livestock were exceedingly rare, Wielgus reported, occurring in fewer than 1 percent of the livestock tracked by his lab. Only in the case of the Profanity Peak pack, where cattle and a salt block to attract them were milling around the wolves’ activity area, had there been multiple calf kills, more than anywhere else surveyed, Wielgus reported.
Wielgus had sent the release to WSU communications staff and administrators and received preapproval by Mittelhammer before putting it out as his personal opinion and not on behalf of the university, as they requested. But that strategy, intended to create distance between Wielgus and WSU, just created confusion.
In an email to Mulick, the WSU state relations director, Tom Davis, of the Washington Farm Bureau and a WAG member, objected that Wielgus was sending out a press release about his publicly funded research findings but labeling them his personal opinion. He also said he wouldn’t attend the meeting if Wielgus was allowed to speak.
Mittelhammer went into response mode, personally meeting with Kretz and other lawmakers, then attending the advisory group meeting with several WSU officials. He followed up with a letter to lawmakers on April 12 reassuring them “while an irritant, the deliberations of the WAG were fortunately not significantly affected by Dr. Wielgus’ attempt to influence the group’s deliberations through the dissemination of his so-called “press release” document.
“That said, on a more individual and personal basis, it did also appear that Dr. Wielgus’ actions did negatively impact a number of individuals in the room who felt that the document reinvigorated negative feelings toward ranchers by wolf protectionists.”
He assured the lawmakers he had sent Wielgus a second “memo of concern,” and promised to follow up with investigations of whether Wielgus had broken state law by illegal lobbying and sending the press release on his state email account. He also promised an internal review of Wielgus’ 2014 wolf paper.
By May, WSU President Kirk Schulz informed Mittelhammer he was concerned WSU might be branded with an “anti-ranching sentiment.”
In other emails, the university president and Mittelhammer agreed they needed to address the school’s relationship with ranchers in future faculty hires. “I feel that they need an internal champion or person that they can work with,” Schulz wrote.
“No evidence of research misconduct”
By then, WSU had cleared Wielgus of any scientific wrongdoing. On May 29, Christopher Keane, the vice president for research at WSU, wrote Kretz and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, thanking them for meeting with him in Olympia to express concern about Wielgus’ research.
However, the result of the subsequent independent review completed by a WSU statistician was clear: “There is no evidence of research misconduct in this matter,” Keane wrote.
But for faculty at WSU, the message nonetheless was clear, said Donna Potts, president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the nation’s oldest and largest advocacy group for academic freedom. “It was very disturbing; I had never seen anything like it,” Potts, a member of the English department, said of WSU’s treatment of a senior faculty member.
Robert Wielgus relaxes at his wolf camp, used when trapping and collaring wolves for his work studying the interactions of cattle and wolves. His studies have found most wolves don’t attack livestock and that killing wolves to protect cattle and sheep can be counterproductive, leading to more mayhem by socially destabilized wolf packs. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Cary Nelson, former national president of the AAUP, who spoke on the issue at WSU last spring, said pressure from industry and from lawmakers friendly to it is nothing unusual. “But it’s up to a university to protect its faculty.”
Actions by state lawmakers and WSU administrators such as those taken against Wielgus have a “chilling effect” on research that could be perceived as controversial, Nelson said.
Scientists who have worked with Wielgus said they are concerned by what they see.
“It’s not that Rob hasn’t stirred up the hornets’ nest — he can test the limits and some people think he is not very diplomatic,” said Gary Koehler, of Wenatchee, who collaborated with Wielgus on bear and cougar research before retiring from the department after 14 years. “But he is a straight shooter.
“Rob is without a doubt one of the top carnivore ecologists in North America. I think Rob has been thrown under the bus.”