Wolf scientist Rob Wielgus, cheered by environmentalists and jeered by cattlemen, parted ways Tuesday with Washington State University, leaving with $300,000 to resolve claims he was muzzled by school administrators.
The university denied any wrongdoing and said in a statement that the settlement was “an opportunity to sever the employment relationship on mutually acceptable terms.”
A WSU spokesman said in an email that neither the school nor Wielgus would comment beyond the joint statement. Wielgus, however, said in a press release issued Wednesday by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that he was subjected to “political pressure from ranching interests.”
In a video posted on PEER’s website, Wielgus said the settlement equaled his salary and benefits for three years and that Tuesday was his last day. Wielgus did not return a call to comment further.
As director of WSU’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab, Wielgus was looked to as an expert by state wildlife managers and lawmakers as wolves began moving into Washington a decade ago.
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen said that Wielgus had credibility with ranchers because he was with WSU, but trust eroded as Wielgus downplayed the danger wolves present to livestock and then blamed a rancher for depredations.
“I think he was trying to show wolves are not an issue,” Nielsen said. “We saw that bias time and time again in his work.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife funded a Wielgus-led study in 2014 that purported to show that killing wolves breaks up packs, encouraging breeding and leading to more attacks on livestock the following year. The study mirrored one that Wielgus and others did the year before on cougars.
While the cougar study influenced Fish and Wildlife, the wolf study apparently did not. Three University of Washington researchers looked at the same wolf information — collected from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — and came to the opposite conclusion, that lethal control reduces depredations.
The UW researchers said Wielgus’ work was statistically flawed. They also said there was an “inherent disconnect” in Wielgus drawing conclusions about the behavior of individual wolfpacks based on statewide numbers.
“I know that particular study by Dr. Wielgus had a rebuttal or two, which is the normal scientific process,”
Fish and Wildlife wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said. “No single publication is the end all, be all.”
In 2016, Wielgus told the Seattle Times that a ranch turned loose cows “on top” of a wolf den. WSU officials publicly rebuked Wielgus. The school said that Wielgus’ claim had no basis in fact. The cattle were turned loose on grazing allotments more than 4 miles from the den. The school blamed Wielgus for stirring up “anger and confusion.”
Nielsen said that Wielgus’ accusation was more damaging than the study. “You have to understand (the den’s location) wasn’t available to the rancher,” he said.
The following year Wielgus restated the accusation in an email to Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Advisory Group. He also advocated making lethal control of wolves on public land contingent on ranchers signing contracts to prevent depredations.
The email, sent from a school account, opened a rift between WSU and some lawmakers. WSU’s Office of Internal Audit concluded the email was a misuse of public resources, but did not constitute lobbying, according to WSU records.
In the PEER video, Wielgus said WSU “stopped harassing me and stopped requiring me to shut up” after PEER came to his defense. He also repeated the accusation that WSU repudiated two years ago.