Wielgus awaits WSU settlement response

Embroiled in ethics complaints, WSU researcher expects agreement with university

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

A WSU wolf researcher anticipates an out-of-court settlement with the university over allegations that administrators violated his academic freedom, while also disputing a new analysis of his data by a conservative think tank.

Robert Wielgus, who filed an ethics complaint earlier this year arguing that WSU harassed him and suppressed his research, said he expects a response about the settlement within a week. Otherwise, he said, he plans to move ahead with a lawsuit.

“Hopefully WSU settles,” he said, adding that a legal battle would likely draw heavy attention in national and international news. He said he is interviewing with The New York Times next week.

Wielgus said he stands by his controversial finding that killing wolves increases livestock depredations, as the Washington Policy Center’s statistical analysis counters this conclusion.

The analysis, performed by the WPC and a statistician, found the opposite, that Wielgus’ data support the “common-sense” notion that fewer wolves means fewer attacks on livestock.

Todd Myers, director of the WPC’s Center for the Environment, wrote that Wielgus’ conclusions are based on “erroneous statistical arguments,” and “are not supported by rigorous analysis of the study’s own data.”

Wielgus noted that his study was reviewed by four wildlife agencies and multiple scientists, compared to what he called “fake news,” and  “your usual right-wing propaganda” in the WPC analysis, which has not been vetted to the same extent.

“These groups just keep on repeating the same lies,” he said, “in the hopes that if you repeat it enough people will believe it’s true.”

After Wielgus publicly criticized a rancher last fall for not doing enough to avoid conflicts between his cattle and wolves, WSU disavowed his statements, saying they were inaccurate and inappropriate.

The university then launched a conduct investigation into Wielgus, though he was later cleared of wrongdoing.

Since then, a public employee advocacy group has filed ethics complaints on behalf of Wielgus against WSU, and against Rep. Joel Kretz, a rancher, saying he threatened to withhold WSU funding if the university did not silence Wielgus.

The WPC’s new analysis echoes the findings of a previous study that included University of Washington researchers, which replicated Wielgus’ study and also found that livestock deaths drop when wolf killings increase. Wielgus told the Evergreen in 2016 that this analysis was “biologically impossible.”

As part of the investigation into Wielgus earlier this year, the WSU statistics department reviewed both studies and reached the same conclusion as Wielgus. However, it noted that other statistical models could reach different conclusions, depending on the variables used.

Wielgus argued that the authors of the UW study — two social scientists in the university’s School of Environmental and Forest Services, and an economist at Kathmandu University — were not qualified to analyze this data. Both he and the UW researchers have claimed flaws in the other’s statistical approach. The results of both were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“None of them are even wildlife people,” Wielgus said of the UW study’s authors. “How did they even write this thing?”

He said his findings have never been challenged by wildlife biologists, and he has the same qualms with the WPC analysis. He said a colleague in the statistics department also reviewed the new analysis and agreed it was not consistent with the data.

“None of it made any sense,” Wielgus said. “It’s just a bunch of gobbledygook.”