A wolf researcher at Washington State University published some research that ranchers in the state didn't like. First, his funding was cut, so he sued the school. Now, he's being forced to resign as part of a $300,000 settlement under that suit, ending a multi-year saga that's pit academic freedom against powerful agricultural influence.
The contention began in 2014 when Robert Wielgus, director of WSU's Carnivore Conservation Lab, published findings from research he had done on killing wild wolves to prevent them from killing livestock. In the study, published in PLoS One, Wielgus analyzed 25 years of data on wolf populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
He found that the rate of wolves preying on livestock actually goes up the more wolves in an area are killed, because it destabilizes the pack's dynamics. This effect continues until 25 percent of the wolf population has been killed, at which point cattle depredation decreases, but, Wielgus noted, killing a quarter of the population is unsustainable over time. In other words: if wolves are killing your cattle, killing the wolves will only make the problem worse unless you kill a quarter of their population.
Ranchers in Washington, who enjoy access to thousands of acres of public grazing lands, and have fought against wolf conservation in the state, quickly complained to the state legislature. In turn, the State Legislature cut Wielgus's funding and encouraged the university to remove him as principal investigator in his research.
The conflict intensified in 2016 when Wielgus spoke out against the state's decision to kill a pack of endangered grey wolves in response to rancher complaints. The university then issued a press release calling his comments "inaccurate and inappropriate." By last spring, Wielgus decided to sue the school for allegedly infringing on his academic freedom.
In the lawsuit filed last year, Wielgus claimed that university administrators had been putting pressure on him to leave.
"When Dr. Wielgus reported his findings and repeated them in the press, WSU administrators repeatedly threatened disciplinary action, including a 'cease and desist' order from making further public statements which they claimed constituted improper 'lobbying,'" reads a press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that helped the academic file his complaint.
He also claimed that administrators "issued official statements erroneously attacking his credibility; and imposed restrictions on his use of grant funds, including denying him reimbursement for research-related expenses."
An investigation from the Seattle Times later revealed emails that show administrators feared the school would lose state funding for a new medical school if they weren't able to quiet tensions over the wolf population.
"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, state records show, according to the Seattle Times.
Finally, last month, the drama seemed to come to a close as WSU settled with Wielgus in exchange for his resignation at the end of this semester on May 15. Now, one of the most prominent scholars trying to understand human-wolf conflict is no longer working in the field, the school got the funding for its medical school, and the ranchers have pushed out a researcher they didn't like.
Conservation is a complex issue, even more so when it gets politicized in this way. But without supporting science and pushing further research, we'll never be able to uncover the tools needed to balance wolf conservation with ranchers' livelihood.
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