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Researcher resigns from Washington State University after wolf studies anger ranchers

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Wyoming Wolves

This file photo shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. 

PULLMAN, Washington — A controversial wolf researcher will accept a $300,000 settlement to leave Washington State University, the school said.

Robert Wielgus, director of the Carnivore Conservation Lab, sued the Pullman school for infringement of his academic freedom.

Wielgus angered ranchers with his research of wolf behavior. He concluded the state's policy of killing wolves that preyed on cattle was likely to increase cattle predation because it destabilized the structure of wolf packs. 

Wielgus’ research included statistics from Montana livestock management programs, where he showed that for each wolf killed for preying on cattle, livestock attacks the following year went up 5 percent. That pattern held until at least a quarter of the local wolf population was killed. In addition, rancher pressure on wolf packs also increased the probability that more than one breeding pair would start having cubs.

Wielgus was also involved in a two-year study in Washington that found non-lethal controls such as range-riding cowboys, prompt removal of carcasses and portable fencing had even more effective reduction in livestock losses than killing wolves did.

Ranchers complained to the Washington State Legislature, which cut Wielgus' funding and demanded he be removed as principal investigator on his ongoing work.

Wielgus then filed a lawsuit alleging the university punished him to placate politicians beholden to ranchers.

The Seattle Times reported Tuesday that WSU administrators became worried the dispute would hurt chances for funding its new medical school.

"If wolves continue to go poorly, there won't be a new medical school," Dan Coyne, lobbyist for WSU, wrote to another WSU lobbyist, according to emails obtained by the newspaper through a public information request.

The settlement will be paid from the state insurance liability account.

The lawsuit was filed with the assistance of PEER, or Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said the case showed that Washington had politicized its wolf policy.

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

The university issued a statement on Monday.

"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," the university said. "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."

While Wielgus' research indicated wolf kills of cattle are rare, the return of the gray wolf to Washington this century has been met with fierce resistance by some ranchers. Washington has about 120 known wolves in 22 packs, mostly in the northeastern corner of the state. The state has engaged in the killing of problem wolves, which has outraged conservation groups.

Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this article.

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