Editor’s note: Several hours after the below blog was published, WSU issued a statement that Rob Wielgus acknowledged ‘he had no basis in fact’ for making the statement referenced in this story, and the university issued an apology.
A Washington State University wolf researcher is again under scrutiny, this time for claims he made about where a rancher turned out cattle earlier this year.
Robert Wielgus told a reporter last week that a Northeast Washington rancher put his cow-calf pairs “directly on top” of the Profanity Peak Pack’s den in the Colville National Forest.
It made a huge splash in the news and social media, and made dealing with the livestock-depredating pack even more of a nightmare.
But on Monday, KING 5 reported that state wolf managers say the cows were actually put out to graze 5 miles away.
And by that time the pack was moving to rendezvous locations elsewhere.
Wolves and cows, of course, have legs, and are bound to move through their territories and grazing allotments as summer progresses, but there’s a vast difference between “This livestock operator elected to put his livestock directly on top of their den site; we have pictures of cows swamping it, I just want people to know” and 5 miles away.
For the moment, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is mum. Multiple messages to a spokesman and the wolf manager this week have not been returned.
However, for the safety of its field staff as well as livestock producers, the agency has generally been limiting its statements about goings-on in northern Ferry County to Thursday afternoon emails to its Wolf Advisory Group and Interested Parties email list.
WDFW is expected to come out with more information about this year’s turnout, conflict prevention measures that Kettle Range ranchers took, the string of confirmed wolf depredations that first led to lethal removal of two wolves and the subsequent attacks that resulted in the death sentence for the 11-member pack.
Meanwhile, Wielgus, who runs WSU’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab, is now reported by The Seattle Times to “have nothing more to say about the controversy, adding in subsequent email: “My friends in WDFW have received death threats … It’s gone tooooo far.”
“Friends” might be a stretch at this point, but no doubt his explosive claims have shoved an already volatile issue into the thermonuclear range.
Determining how and when lethal removal of depredating wolves should occur took WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group — made up of ranchers, hunters and wolf advocates — months and months of hard work and negotiations. It wasn’t exactly easy for state staffers and Fish and Wildlife Commissioners before them either.
Add in the over-the-top symbolism of wolves for some, outside agitators using the opportunity to raise money and media attention, wolfies’ ongoing hard-on over the Diamond M Ranch and Wedge Pack removal, and campaigns against grazing on public lands, and yeah, a “predictable and avoidable” outcome resulted, all right.
While Wielgus said that putting out wolves around a den would result in “predictable” conflicts, that’s not entirely true either.
Conservation Northwest executive director Mitch Friedman says it’s not necessarily a harbinger of depredation, though it does take work to prevent wolves and calves from tangling.
“We have cows on top of wolf dens in other places without incident. In one of our range rider pilots, the herd has spent much of the last five seasons in the same meadows with the Smackout Pack den, mostly without incident,” Friedman emailed. “Of course, that rancher puts a lot of effort into having a human presence.”
KING 5 reported that “WDFW worked with both (ranchers who’ve suffered depredations by the Profanity Peak Pack) to incorporate efforts like cleaning up carcasses, using range riders, and waiting until calves are larger to release them. Eventually, all of those options failed and the depredations continued.”
At one time, Wielgus was the darling amongst some wolf advocates.
His 2014 paper that found removing livestock-killing wolves leads to increased chances of depredations the next year became all but the Final Word on the matter.
It’s still held up as such, but not unlike follow-up research on the affect wolf reintroduction had on Yellowstone National Park, Wielgus’ work is not holding up under scrutiny.
Over the past year, two papers have challenged his “counterintuitive” results.
University of Washington researchers couldn’t replicate them, while a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks scientist suggested that it may be better to kill an entire livestock-depredating pack rather than just one or two of the predators at a time in hopes of ending the attacks.
Stay turned for more developments ….