But Solomon thought the saga was worth a deeper look.
“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf Scientist,” published July 5, 2018, in The New York Times Magazine, centers around controversial wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus, a former tenured professor at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Solomon is an avid skier, hiker and fly fisherman who has made his mark writing about the environment and the outdoors; this was one more chance for him to spend time in the wild. And as a freelancer, he has learned to scour the landscape for fresh approaches to the stories that draw him.
Besides that, Wielgus – a tattooed, tough-talking, melodramatic, motorcycle-riding scientist – is the kind of character Solomon likes best.
“He was very outspoken, often uncensored, and sometimes wrong about things,” Solomon told me when I reached out to ask about the wolf man piece. “He also was hard to stereotype; he called himself a ‘redneck hippie.’ All this added up to a subject who was hard to pigeonhole and interesting to try to understand.”
Profiling Wielgus also gave Solomon an opportunity to explore a contentious issue that embroils the American West: While wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, game officials in some regions can destroy a wolf if a rancher has taken measures to deter the predators but the wolf continues to kill livestock.
Solomon hunts for chances to unspool big themes through individuals like Wielgus – in fact, he told me he won’t pursue a major piece unless he has a strong protagonist to build it around. That approach has helped him land long-form narratives under national mastheads, and be named a contributing editor to Outside Magazine.
(Two of his pieces have been selected for this year’s “Best” anthologies. “The Detective of Northern Oddities,” published January 2017 in Outside Magazine, profiles a veterinary pathologist in Alaska who studies dead wildlife to try to discern a link to climate change; it will be featured in The Best American Science & Nature Writing. “In the Home of the Bear,” published December 2017 in High Country News, takes readers on an up-damn-close journey with grizzlies in Alaska’s McNeil River bear sanctuary; it is a pick for the upcoming “Best American Travel Writing.”)
Solomon’s story sense is formed by learning that “people don’t respond to facts.” (He says an an editor once told him: You keep bringing us issues, but we want stories.)
“Look at the public’s resistance to the facts of climate change,” he said. “You can cluck in dismay all you want about that, but the truth is that humans respond to emotion. So you hang the larger issue from the frame of this person’s personal struggle. If you’ve done your job well, the reader is surprised how much she has learned, because she has been pulled along by the story.”
All that informed Solomon’s desire to write about Wielgus, the controversy spawned by Wielgus’ research and the larger issues it represented. Solomon says he did his usual “crap-ton” of background reporting: He made calls, wrote emails, read whatever he could find and requested thousands of pages of public records from WSU. By the time he started to write, he had immersed himself in the history of the near-extinction of wolves in the U.S., the tensions over their reemergence in the Northwest, and the ins and outs of the conflict between Wielgus, university officials and state lawmakers.
But Solomon always makes time to get out in the field to talk with key people in person. He estimates he worked for five months on the wolf story while juggling three other assignments.
For all that, he spent just a little more than a day with Wielgus, his main character, which is all he could get. Luckily, he said, “it was a very rich day.”
That day came two-thirds into Solomon’s reporting, when he was far enough along in background research to now focus on scene, character and the bigger thematic questions.
“The background work usually impresses people,” he told me. “The person notices and cares that you have put in the effort.”
On the day Solomon was to finally meet Wielgus, he arrived early at their rendezvous point: tiny Republic, Washington, a town of some 1,000 souls tucked in the far north of the state, all but surrounded by the Colville National Forest. Solomon wanted a bit of time to explore on his own.
“I scribbled down postings I saw on bulletin boards on the main street, and flyers on lampposts,” he said. “I wrote down what was inside the beds of pickup trucks throttling down Main Street. I wrote down the unusual things for sale at a pawn shop in town and I wrote down the fun conversation I had with the owner of the shop, who didn’t know I was a reporter.”
Just one example of his vacuum-cleaner approach: He noted that a large cougar pelt sat on the counter of the pawn shop. That detail didn’t end up in his story, but Solomon says it helped him get a sense of the place. The dozens of details he leaves out makes him confident about the two or three that make it in. During interviews, he doesn’t just write down answers to his questions, but logs what he’s smelling and hearing, how the light looks on the trees, and what the interviewee is doing, even if it’s just to roll down the car window or turn up the radio. It’s hard, he says, to tell right away what will be helpful when writing.
“I enjoy the hell out of wandering around like this,” he said. “One is a salaried flaneur.”
THE ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Solomon’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rob Wielgus was one of America’s pre-eminent experts on large carnivores. Then he ran afoul of the enemies of the wolf.
By Christopher Solomon
The New York Times Magazine
July 5, 2018
You might not guess from looking at him that Rob Wielgus was until recently a tenured professor of wildlife ecology. Wielgus likes to spend time in the backwoods of the American West that lie off the edge of most tourist maps, and he dresses the part: motorcycle leathers, tattoos on both forearms, the stringy hairs of a goatee dangling like lichen from his lower lip.
Atop his bald head he often wears a battered leather bush hat of the type seen at Waylon Jennings concerts. A Camel smolders in his face like a fuse.
The first time I called him, he told me that he couldn’t chat because he was riding his Harley home from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. In introducing Wielgus and, later, his antagonist, you start with a physical description. I’ve seen this in a number of your stories. Why do you do that right off the bat? I enjoy describing people, places, things. I think readers want to visualize a character if they’re going to spend time with that character for a few pages. So I try to give that description up-front. I do think a New Yorker approach definitely can work, where the description of someone’s appearance comes in Section III of a story. But the reality is that most of us work under much tighter word counts, and we always will. And a description of appearance later in a story runs the risk of feeling tacked on, which gives an editor an opening to cut it. This story shows Wielgus as the match that sets fire to his own career. Am I right to assume the word “fuse” in your description of him is designed to foreshadow what’s to come? “Fuse” was an intentional choice. Years ago I heard Rick Bragg talk about how the best details are those that do double-duty — that is, they provide color while also giving us more insight into the story or character. It was hard not to see the parade of glowing white Camels in Wielgus’ mouth as fuses stuck in a man who always seemed about to combust with emotion.
When we met last fall, Wielgus, who is 61, wasn’t wearing his bush hat, however, but a straw cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. He was, he explained, in disguise. We had rendezvoused in Republic, a faded former mining town of about a thousand people in the northeastern part of Washington State. Stores wore boomtown facades to tempt passing drivers and their dollars to linger. But this was mid-October: Pickup trucks throttled past on the main drag, hauling hay and firewood for a winter that would slump down from Canada any day. You are a master of the telling detail. But the description of the town of Republic was one place where I wondered if you needed as much as you had. I would argue that the description of Republic is necessary, given the action that follows. It sets the scene, of a rural, conservative, slightly down-at-the-heels Western town – the kind of place where a college professor like Wielgus, with his contrary viewpoints, might find himself unwelcome. In this way it also sets up the one man-against-others theme that will permeate the rest of the piece. The description provides a little context for the sense of menace and intimidation that Wielgus feels – whether real or imagined by him. Finally, I did want to give readers a few glimpses of rural northeastern Washington State, where the wolves roam. Even so, I tried to keep the description brief. This was no time for entire paragraphs on Republic’s mining history (though I had them, from touring the local history museum).
Wielgus had spent years in the surrounding woods doing research, and he loved the area. Now he considered it hostile territory. Before he pushed through the swinging doors of a bar, he paused and lifted an untucked shirt to show me the black handle of a .357 handgun poking from the front pocket of his jeans. “Too many death threats,” he said. “I never started carrying this till I started studying wolves.”
Not long ago, Wielgus was a respected researcher at Washington State University in Pullman, in the far eastern part of the state, with his own prosperous lab and several graduate students under his guidance. His specialty was North American apex predators — mountain lions and bears. Over a 35-year career, Wielgus has published surprising research about how these animals behave, especially once their paths cross with civilization. Unlike some wildlife research, which can be esoteric, Wielgus’s work by its nature has concrete, real-world implications. And Wielgus, by his nature, hasn’t been shy about emerging from academia to tell wildlife managers, ranchers and politicians exactly how they have screwed up and why they should pay more attention to him and his findings. He is accustomed to being the least-popular man in the room. It’s not until fairly deep into the piece that we know, in any detail, what Wielgus found in his wolf research. Why did you hold off on that? I struggle often where to place chunks of dense info in a story so the placement feels thematically correct but doesn’t break down the momentum. Wielgus’ research originally was higher up in the story. My editor suggested that it was too much info, too soon. He was right. We ended up teasing the research high up, and delivering more later.
Wielgus had no idea how unpopular he could get, though, until he began to study wolves. By the time I met him, his academic reputation lay in shreds. His lab was essentially shuttered. He was $50,000 in debt, he said, and he had had to pull his daughters out of college. His career, he told me, was over.
Even today, no animal in North America is at once more loved and reviled than Canis lupus, the gray wolf. Once as many as two million of them loped the forests and arroyos of the continent, Nate Blakeslee writes in “American Wolf.” Then European settlers arrived and got to work. There were bounties for wolves as early as Jamestown. “Wolfers” later roamed the Great Plains, shooting buffalo, lacing the carcasses with strychnine and returning the next day to collect the poisoned wolves’ pelts for their $2 bounties, Barry Lopez recounts in “Of Wolves and Men.” A federal program would kill tens of thousands more, including in our national parks. By World War II, wolves had been eliminated from most places in the country.
In 1973, Congress passed the landmark Endangered Species Act. Within a few years, the gray wolf was listed as “endangered” throughout the West. Gray wolves were successfully reintroduced in the mid-1990s when the federal government relocated 31 wolves from Canada to Wyoming’s Yellowstone country and 35 to central Idaho. Since then, wolves have wandered across state lines to take up residence again in their former homes in Oregon and California.
Wherever the predators have arrived, blistering conflicts have followed. Shouting matches at public meetings. Threats to government officials. Dead livestock. Dead wolves. So in 2008, when biologists found that the first wolves had returned to Washington since the animals were extirpated there in the 1930s, officials pledged to learn from other states’ mistakes. They would finally move past the “smoke a pack a day” threats of the virulently anti-wolf crowd, not to mention the incessant carping of environmentalists. In time, the state would go so far as to spend $1.2 million on a consulting group that applied to wildlife issues the peace-building strategies learned in places like Rwanda and East Timor.
But no conservation issue in the West today is more polarizing than wolves, where the trenches on each side remain well worn and deep. On one side are people who want to see the return of an important predator — physically and symbolically — to the landscape (or, more precisely, simply to know again that it is there, because spotting a wolf outside of Yellowstone can be famously difficult). On the other side are people who also care about the land but for whom the Great Outdoors is often where they make their living. Some run cattle or have flocks of sheep or horses. When wolves and people share the same landscape, sometimes wolves kill what people value, like cows and dogs. These killings take money from their pockets, and it spreads fear.
In a larger sense, the argument over wolves is a gulf of values: In bringing back wolves, one side wants to atone for the sins of the past and knit back together a wounded landscape; the other sees in wolves’ proliferation a refutation of the rural way of life of the American West. A wolf, in this debate, is always much bigger than a wolf. “Wolves are Democrats,” I was told more than once; they symbolize Big Government and regulation and all the ways that distant bureaucrats and coastal elites want to destroy the cherished rural ranching culture of the West.
The strange story of Rob Wielgus is a tale of what happened to one loud scientist who ran afoul of powerful forces. More broadly, it’s a parable of the American West in the 21st century and of how little we still can agree what it should look like. And it’s a reminder that, if you find yourself in a powder keg, the last thing you want to be is a struck match. Did you see this story as a parable of the American West in the 21st century before you started reporting? If not, what was your initial thought about the theme of this story? At first, this seemed a straightforward story about a researcher and a controversial topic, wolves – a good story in itself. Then the story began to have elements of the larger ‘war on science.’ But Wielgus and his case are sui generis, in some ways, so that doesn’t fully fit. Only later, at the end of the reporting, did it seem that this story also speaks to some of the ongoing divides in the American West, and the power systems that guide them.
Since their howls were first confirmed in the North Cascades a decade ago, wolves have prospered in Washington State. Today 22 documented packs are sprinkled around the state, totaling at least 122 animals — a conservative estimate, as the state acknowledges. In 2015 a wolf was hit by a car within a commuter’s drive of Seattle.
A state recovery plan that covers the eastern third of Washington allows no killing of wolves except in special circumstances until their numbers sufficiently rebound. (Federal regulations protect them in the western two-thirds of the state.) As the wolf population has grown, poaching has occurred. Six years ago two ranchers and one of their wives were sentenced for violating the Endangered Species Act after she tried to FedEx a box that was dripping blood. It contained a fresh wolf pelt being sent for tanning. As I said earlier, you are a master of the telling detail, like the wolf being hit within a commuters’ drive of Seattle, and the FedEx box dripping blood. Do these come up as you report, or do you spend time specifically hunting for them? I love little details that tell a story. I keep an eye out for them. After all, what paints a clearer picture – a sentence that says, “Poaching sometimes occurs” or one that says, “A Fed Ex box dripping blood”? It’s an indulgence, but I have a subscription to ExpertAccess.org – a version of the LexisNexis story database. It’s $250 a year, I think– a little steep. But with the database you can find stories on your topic or person published all over the world, in publications small and large. There are often gems in these stories (that you then have to go back and verify, if you use them). A lot of people these days think they can do all their research on Google, just reading stories that pop up. But there’s a lot of good stuff out there that won’t appear on a web search.
In Washington State, politics and cultures split as sharply as the climate does along the crest of the Cascade Mountains — generally wet, urban and liberal on one side, and dry, wide open and deeply red on the other. Government-mandated protection of wolves doesn’t go over well in a region where independence is prized and where rural residents tend to look sidelong at any mention of environmentalism or endangered species, seeing the words as code for an attack on jobs like ranching that aren’t easy, or necessarily lucrative, to begin with. And wolves sometimes do cause losses to ranchers: A 2015 look at wolf predation in three Rocky Mountain states said that wolves killed 967 animals — cattle, sheep, goats, llamas and horses — between 1989 and 2008.
Washington State has a program to reimburse ranchers for wolf depredations. But not every death is compensated. And ranchers are proud: Some won’t take the dollars. “I don’t raise my animals to get ate,” as one horse rancher put it. They would rather address the problem at its source. In Washington’s wolf country, it’s not unheard-of for a county’s leaders to authorize the sheriff to usurp state authority and kill wolves if needed or for a billboard to appear in Spokane bearing demonic yellow eyes above a laughing little girl and the question, “Who’s next on their menu?”
Agriculture and ranching are powerful in Washington State — agriculture is a $10.6 billion industry, and the state leads the nation in producing crops like apples, hops and blueberries. This means serious sway in the Legislature, which controls a chunk of funding for Washington State University, a land-grant university with a heavy focus on agriculture research. All of this can make for a complicated pas de deux between politicians and the university. This was the fraught world that Wielgus, the maverick academic, was thrust into. With the “crap-ton” of research you did, how did you organize your notes when it came time to write? I am terrible at this part of the process … my first step is to re-read everything I have collected. This takes forever. But how to make sense of it? I’ve tried a number of things. Often, I just take notes of my notes — distilling them down. But that can result in 18 pages of notes, on a legal pad. Just nuts. I’ve tried John McPhee’s strategy of using 3×5 cards. I didn’t love it. Too many cards. The latest method that intrigues me, taught to me by Tom Curwen at the L.A. Times: 1) Make a list of all the ‘topics’ your final story will have. Label them A-Z. 2) Read through your notes. Beside each fact/note/quote you want to use, place the appropriate letter. “A. / C. / X. / etc.” 3) Use the “sort” function on your word processor (make sure you have the function, and know how to use it, before you start) to collate your notes into these discrete topics. 4) Essentially, you now have the basics of an outline — your notes divided into the topics you want to cover. It takes some practice, but it’s kind of slick.
Wielgus grew up hunting rabbits and poking around the woods that fringed the suburbs of Winnipeg, Manitoba. (He holds Canadian and American passports, and his voice still tilts upward pleasantly at the end of some sentences.) After college he took provincial jobs with wildlife agencies, studying moose, elk and caribou. In your structure, you start by introducing Wielgus, then step back to talk about the controversy over wolves nationally, then a history of wolves in Washington state. After that, you go into a tick-tock of the Wielgus saga. Why did you organize it this way? This story is part profile. It couldn’t be told without first introducing Wielgus, since he would appear throughout the rest of the piece. And he cuts a striking figure. Within the first five minutes of meeting him, we walked into the bar in Republic, and the exchange in those moments was almost surreal. It seemed to capture the tension and high emotion surrounding wolves, and also captured the melodrama about Wielgus, too. It was one of those “well, this is probably my lede” moments that a reporter is glad to get. But the opening section also needed to have a minor primer about wolves, just to set the stage for a reader who knows nothing about the predator. Originally, the history and background about wolves kicked off Section II of the piece. But there was no room to do that – mention history, then return again to history – even in a piece that ended up being 5,500 words. So we trimmed it out of the later section, kept it tight and punchy, and moved all of the history up to the intro section. Then it’s done, and we can move on. How long was the story when you turned it in? I turned in a 6,000ish word story, originally. It went through rewrites – things removed, moved around, added – and crept up to 6,500 words. But the assignment was 4,500 words. Fortunately, at the 11th hour, the editors found room for another 1,000 words. Which was a gift. So the final cutting wasn’t brutal.
He first became interested in carnivores when he embarked on graduate school and received an offer to join a grizzly-bear research effort in Alberta. “The danger of grizzlies really turned my crank because I was an adrenaline junkie,” he told me that night at the bar in Republic (where the evening’s chief threat turned out to be a bartender who didn’t have Wielgus’s preferred whiskey). He got his doctorate studying grizzlies in western Canada and northern Idaho, then went to the Pyrenees for a year to help with bear recovery. In 1997, Wielgus took a job as an assistant professor at W.S.U. He started the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory and began to study mountain lions. Through their work, he and colleagues discovered something fascinating: Killing adult males actually increased cougar sightings and also the number of cattle and sheep killed by other mountain lions, as younger cougars showed up in the old cat’s territory. The studies later played a part in a decision not to expand the hunting of mountain lions in the state.
In 2012, the state asked Wielgus to calculate a population model for Washington’s wolf-recovery plan. Wielgus had never studied wolves before, but he had a successful ongoing collaboration with the state’s wildlife agency, and the job aligned well with the lab’s overall focus. The agency was pleased with the modeling work and came back with a much larger offer: to oversee a multimillion-dollar research project as part of wolves’ return to Washington. Funded by the state Legislature for at least four years, the work would try to get to the bottom of the age-old conflict between wolves and livestock.
For a carnivore scientist, it was a tremendous opportunity. Wielgus designed a study that would radio-collar hundreds of livestock and dozens of wolves. “It was the largest study of wolf-livestock interactions ever conducted on the planet,” he told me. In other places where wolves and livestock share the landscape, only about 20 percent of wolf packs ever attack sheep and cattle. But there wasn’t a lot of good information about what accounts for those attacks and therefore how they might be prevented. Tracking both predator and prey would help provide answers. Fewer dead cows would mean fewer wolves hunted down. And that could mean peace among the humans.
Once Wielgus got his first round of money to start the study, the associate dean for research at W.S.U.’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences asked Wielgus to come see him. At the meeting, according to Wielgus, the dean reminded him that his work would be controversial and unpopular with some politicians. Then, Wielgus said, the dean drew a box in the air between the men, and added, “If you step outside of this box, then basically your job is over.”
It felt like a threat, Wielgus said: “I didn’t even start the research yet.” (The university says the dean denies making the statement.)
Both men knew who was likeliest to be unhappy: State Representative Joel Kretz, the Republican deputy minority leader of the State House. At least 15 of the state’s known wolf packs live in Kretz’s northeast Washington district, which is largely rural and forested and is the size of Massachusetts. Kretz is a vocal supporter of his constituents’ way of life and fights back when he perceives it to be threatened. He advocates for a lower bar to kill wolves when they prey on livestock. And, in a cheekier move, in 2013 he introduced a bill that would have shipped wolves off to the San Juan Islands, the popular getaway northwest of Seattle.
One morning in late autumn, I drove a few hours and turned at the crossroads of Wauconda, to visit Kretz. When not in the state capital Olympia, he lives here at his 1,400-acre Promised Land Ranch. Kretz poured coffee in his kitchen near a sign that read “Life’s Better in Cowboy Boots.” He wore a hide-colored Wrangler pearl-button shirt and a tooled leather belt with a silver buckle, his trademark wrangler’s mustache completing the effect. Out the window, a weak December sun rose above a corral steaming with quarter horses, which Kretz raises and sells.
Kretz told me he had mistrusted Wielgus for a long time, since Wielgus’s initial mountain-lion studies. “A lot of the state’s wildlife policy has been based on his work over the last 10 or 15 years, and I’d say at one time he did good work,” Kretz told me. “I mean, he’s a smart guy.” But Wielgus had “drifted,” Kretz said. Kretz himself is a sometime lion hunter; in a local newspaper, I found a picture of him sitting on a pickup’s tailgate beside a big dead tom, wearing stripes of its blood on his cheeks like war paint. Wielgus “has an animal rights agenda, and it taints his work,” Kretz said, though he didn’t point to any science refuting the peer-reviewed lion research. By leading to policies that maintained low limits on the number of cougars that could be harvested, Kretz said, Wielgus’s cougar work made it harder for people in rural areas to manage (i.e., kill) the cats. He suggested that tying the hands of his constituents could increase attacks by the animals on children. (Cougar attacks on humans are in fact rare.) Several times you let someone say something controversial or untrue, then undercut it with a statement in parenthesis. What’s the thought behind doing that rather than having Kretz and others address the criticism directly? Sometimes I felt it was important to let the person say his piece. Kretz, for instance, chose a course of action based, apparently, on his beliefs. So I gave him the chance to say why he did what he did. But, as a journalist, it’s also my job to address inaccuracies. I owe it to the reader to tell them that at some point.
So Wielgus and his graduate students already had an ardent skeptic watching them when they got to work in 2013 recruiting ranchers for their wolf-livestock study. It was slow-going at first. Many ranchers were reluctant to collaborate in a study about wolves. And Wielgus didn’t always endear himself to people. Over hours of conversation, I found him to be articulate, irreverent and passionate — and also blunt, cocksure, hyperbolic and prone to melodrama. It could be hard to tell at times whether he was performing for me. Among scientists, who can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species, he was unusual for saying exactly what he thought, often at high volume. His indelicacy made him poorly suited to enter the charged world of wolf politics.
All sides got a taste of Wielgus in the summer of 2014 after wolves from the Huckleberry pack in northeast Washington killed dozens of sheep that belonged to a single rancher. (Packs are usually named after a nearby mountain or other feature, in this case Huckleberry Mountain.) As events unfolded, there was plenty of blame to go around, said Carter Niemeyer, a well-regarded wolf expert who worked with Wielgus at the time: The rancher didn’t take prudent efforts to safeguard his sheep, which fomented the chaos; then, a government shooter made the critical mistake of killing the wolf pack’s breeding female. Afterward, at a meeting of the Wolf Advisory Group, a regular convening of ranchers, hunters, local politicians and environmentalists that helps guide the state’s wolf policy, Wielgus stood up and criticized just about everyone involved, recalled Niemeyer, who was at the meeting. “Some of the stuff Rob is doing is what a lot of us would like to do, but we know better,” Niemeyer told me. “He walks in and doesn’t respect the politics of wolves.”
Wielgus didn’t particularly disagree with that assessment. “I’m crude and rude,” he said the day after our talk in the bar. “Always have been.” (Chulo lobo — Spanish for “wolf pimp,” a slur someone once called Wielgus — is stenciled on his Harley’s gas tank.) We were driving east, through a land dressed for autumn. Over Sherman Pass, Wielgus turned his black pickup onto a Forest Service road. His satellite radio was set to Outlaw Country. When I asked whether he’d considered the merits of deploying honey versus vinegar, he retorted, “Bullshit is superdiplomatic.” And he added: “I’m not gonna mince my words and pretend to be a nice diplomatic guy, ’cause I’m not. I’m a pissed-off scientist.” Whose idea was it for you and Wielgus to go to the site of the Profanity Peak pack’s den? It was my idea to go into the mountains with Wielgus. Nearly all of this story recounts events in the past that I’d never get the chance to witness first-hand. Even so, I wanted the story to have some action – I want to see things and describe things. I think stories feel more immediate and successful if that can be done in a way that doesn’t feel too forced. I’ve also found that doing something with someone, in a place he or she feels comfortable and is perhaps distracted by a task (driving, flensing a whale, whatever), is the best way to get the person relaxed and talking. Did he think that was weird? How do you convince sources when they balk? Wielgus at first was a little reluctant to drive several hours to Republic and then into the mountains with me. That’s a lot to ask of someone. But I explained to him that this was a large story, and so it required certain things of him. I needed to understand him in his environment. After that, he got it. I’m happy to explain to people why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think sometimes they think the requests are odd. But I find that people are pretty pleasant, and pretty compliant, if you ask nicely, and if you show sincere interest in them and what they do.
We rattled higher through dark spruce and lodgepole. Mist snagged on the peaks. “It’s great wolf country,” he said, waving a hand before the windshield. We crossed one cattle guard, then another.
In the fall of 2014, Wielgus and a colleague published the lab’s first wolf study in the journal PLOS One. Crunching a quarter-century of data about wolf attacks on livestock in three other states, the authors found something unusual: Killing wolves one year was associated with more, not fewer, deaths of livestock the following year. The paper further suggested that killing wolves may cause the increased livestock deaths. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that one causes the other, but Wielgus posited a firm connection. As he explained to me, killing wolves fractures the highly regimented social order of the pack. “So, if you kill wolves, you get more breeding pairs, you get more livestock depredation.” This was of a piece with his previous work: When humans kill the apex predator, a chaotic reshuffling is set into motion, with unintended consequences.
If Wielgus’s reasoning was correct, the finding was explosive. It undermined “lethal control” — killing wolves — a major, and controversial, tool many states use to manage wolves and that some environmentalists reluctantly tolerate as the price of getting the animals back on the landscape. (In Washington today, if a livestock owner loses three animals in 30 days, or four in 10 months, and has undertaken at least two measures to deter wolves, the state may begin to eliminate the predators.)
The study made national headlines. It also fired up some lawmakers and ranching and agriculture groups. At the time, Wielgus’s university had been looking for money and support for a few major construction projects, including some tied to the College of Agriculture. W.S.U. also was gathering support to build a medical school in Spokane. As reported in The Seattle Times, when the study appeared, an outside lobbyist for W.S.U. wrote to the university’s director of state relations, Chris Mulick, “[H]ighly 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.”
“[W]e’re looking a wee bit like Sonny on the causeway here,” Mulick wrote to another university official, alluding to the assassination scene in “The Godfather.”
Soon after that, in early 2015, several of Wielgus’s graduate students visited the state Capitol to present their ongoing wolf-livestock work to lawmakers. When they stopped by to see Kretz in his office, he was friendly and showed off some hunting pictures, they said. Then he told them matter-of-factly that he planned to shut down Wielgus’s lab. (Kretz said he only vowed to cut off state funding.)
During state budget negotiations a few months later, when it was time to fund the next round of wolf research, many Republican legislators balked. Kretz was willing to work with Democrats to secure money for the work, which he told me he thought was important for ranchers, his constituents. But he had a condition: The money had to be rerouted through another research group, essentially laundering it of Wielgus’s name. No longer would Wielgus be the primary researcher, a professional blow that also meant he couldn’t be paid for his months of summer work each year — a change that would cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Kretz told me that he undertook the action to be fiscally responsible, to not let money flow to a researcher he found disreputable. The fact that some Washington state lawmakers tied their support for a new WSU medical school to withdrawing money from Wielgus sounds, in itself, explosive. Were you tempted to make that a bigger part of the narrative? In a word, yes. Documents and emails obtained from public-records requests show a university administration consumed with how it is perceived, both by state legislators and Big Agriculture in the state. There are some questionable examples of the university kowtowing to these interests and pressures. I wrote much more about this in earlier drafts of the story. Alas, it was trimmed out over time, as sometimes happens.
By that fall, Wielgus had started to see signs that his university no longer supported him against his critics. He and a doctoral student published two more papers about the behavior of mountain lions. Again, the results were counterintuitive: They found that hunting older male cougars seems to increase the preying of cougars on populations of mule deer and also critically endangered mountain caribou in the Pacific Northwest. Before the papers’ publication, Wielgus worked with a university writer on a news release to the media. “I’ve just learned another Wielgus study news release is set for release,” Chris Mulick wrote to fellow administrators. “I am happy to beg that we not go forward with this.” The interim co-provost then emailed the writer who wrote the release: “[P]lease do NOT release this on Monday. Our government relations staff have advised that this could potentially create substantial difficulties for CAHNRS [the ag school] and W.S.U.” W.S.U. also spiked an already-completed profile of Wielgus slated for the university magazine. Wielgus emailed his doctoral student, “My name is voldemort in wa. … he who must never be mentioned.”
So Wielgus was already feeling persecuted when, in early 2016, researchers at the University of Washington and Kathmandu University published a study that contradicted Wielgus’s 2014 findings. Tweaking the statistical models, they determined that killing a wolf one year decreases the number of cattle and sheep killed the next year. To his opponents, the rebuttal study was support for their case that Wielgus was biased and doing shoddy work in the service of his prejudice. Wielgus saw it as part of a political vendetta against him — a rival university prompted to do a hit job.
Later, Lyudmyla Kompaniyets and Marc Evans of W.S.U. took a third cut at the same data and came to yet another result. Their study found that Wielgus was correct that more cattle died even as wolf deaths increased. But they concluded that Wielgus’s study overlooked a simpler explanation for that rise in livestock depredation: Wolves were proliferating at the time. Recent papers from other researchers have added texture to the data around the effectiveness of lethal control but as yet provide no definitive answer. From a distance, this just looks like science as usual, moving forward in its crooked line.
But the topic here was wolves, and that weaponized everything.
After what seemed like hours of driving, Wielgus turned onto a rough spur road and stopped the truck at a hairpin turn on the hillside. On the drive he had been talkative; now he grew quiet. He climbed out and motioned with a fresh cigarette: A few hundred yards from here the Profanity wolf pack, named for nearby Profanity Peak, made its den in the spring of 2016. Wielgus wouldn’t walk any closer. “I just don’t want to go where the pups were gunned down,” he said.
Wolf packs have large territories — Profanity’s was about 350 square miles, and it overlapped with parts of the Colville National Forest where ranchers lease public land to graze their cattle for market. That spring, the Diamond M Ranch released its cattle a few miles from the new den, where the pups had been born. By July the Profanity pack had killed its first calf. By August as many as eight more cows were dead. That’s when the agency shot two wolves by helicopter.
Wielgus was livid. He isn’t against killing wolves as a last resort, he explained, but this, he said, was no last resort. He and his grad students were monitoring the radio-collared Profanity wolves at the time. By the end of June, the wildlife agency knew where the new den site was, and that the pack had pups. They also knew that the ranch had set salt blocks nearby, which attract cattle, who lick them for the needed minerals. But even after the first livestock was confirmed killed in early July, no one moved the salt blocks, “and no one moved the livestock,” Wielgus said. Trail cameras used to monitor the pack showed that cows were all around the area through July. Once the area’s deer, a preferred prey, were scared off by the cows, wolves opportunistically attacked cattle, he said. Wielgus insists to this day that the Diamond M’s patriarch, Len McIrvin, could have been prodded by the state to take steps — quickly moving the salt blocks, removing cattle from the den site — to avoid serious problems. But McIrvin, who has a well-documented antipathy to wolves and has three times had the state kill wolves for him after taking cattle losses, all but forced further confrontation by his inaction, Wielgus claimed. And, he said, the state was complicit for making nice with the rancher while not forcing him to do more. “The movie is called ‘Set Up and Sold Out,’ ” Wielgus fumed.
Threading through and animating Wielgus’s fury is what he sees as a systemic problem: Little is legally required of ranchers before the state agrees to kill wolves on their behalf. At the time, ranchers were required to remove any dead animals and undertake just one additional preventive measure from a menu of options, which could be as basic as not turning out to pasture underweight calves that could be easier targets. Low bars like this, in Wielgus’s view, result in more conflict; we’re dragging out this century-long fight over predators rather than resolving it. But there’s a smarter, more humane way to live in harmony with wolves, he said. Yes, it will require uprooting some of the old ways. It will take more effort. But these are also public lands, and the wolves belong there, too.
In a seven-year case study published last year, researchers found that sheepherders in Idaho who used a strategic array of nonlethal deterrents — from flagged fences to dogs to increased human presence — to protect sheep from wolves on public lands experienced significantly lower wolf depredations. Sheepherders lost just 0.02 percent of the sheep population in those protected areas, the lowest loss rate among sheep-wolf areas statewide. The rate was 3.5 times as high in a study area not protected against wolves. And no wolves were killed in the area in which the deterrents were used.
Of course, fencing and cowboys cost money. And lethal control is often better funded in the West than deterrence. But to demand less deterrence before we kill wolves, Wielgus argued, is unfair to wolves, cattle and even ranchers, who may over time lose their access to public lands if wolves keep needing to be killed. And it sets up a cruel paradox. “We spend millions of dollars on wolf recovery, and then what — we just shoot them? It’s insane.” He kicked at a cow pie in disgust.
The Profanity wolves killed more cattle in mid-August of 2016, and the state wildlife director approved the shooting of up to the entire pack. “I snapped,” Wielgus said. When The Seattle Times called to ask what was going on, he lashed out — at the decision to kill the wolves, at the rancher (by name) and at the rancher’s actions that, Wielgus claimed, provoked the depredation. “This livestock operator elected to put his livestock directly on top of their den site,” he told the paper.
The Profanity saga is a complicated one, more nuanced than in Wielgus’s telling, with accounts that turn on details that I have been unable to reconcile. Were you disappointed when you realized you weren’t going to get to the bottom of what happened to the Profanity Peak pack? Was untangling that history one of your original goals? At first I had wanted to untangle the Profanity incident, and I was disappointed when I saw that it seemed unlikely to do so. Then a much smarter friend reminded me that this wasn’t so important. In the end, this story is about bigger things – about how people reacted to the incident, and not just the incident itself.
But it does seem that Wielgus, in his anger, exaggerated some statements he made to the newspaper. The rancher didn’t know of the den’s location when he first loosed his cattle a few miles away, said Donny Martorello, the wolf-policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and he cooperated with wildlife officials. The situation that summer was “dynamic,” Martorello said, with the wolves moving around the area quite a bit. Wolves and cattle-grazing areas overlap almost everywhere in the state, he concluded: “To think we’re going to stop all conflict is not realistic.”
I called the rancher, McIrvin, who lives hard by the Canadian border. He said that he and other ranchers weren’t told precisely where the den site was. He didn’t put his salt lick right atop a wolf den that spring; he put it right where he has put it for decades, where the Forest Service had told him to put it, he said, which turned out to be near the den.
But McIrvin showed little interest in relitigating the past, and he also showed little patience for anyone who wanted to accommodate wolves. “The range riders, all they are is coroners to find the dead ones,” he said of cattle, of which he claims to lose 70 per year to the predator, though he acknowledged the state can’t confirm that. There’s only one deterrence that works: “Putting the fear of man into that mother wolf,” he said. “We could take care of the wolves. That’s no problem. It’s the bureaucracy that’s the problem.”
In any event, Wielgus’s comments to the newspaper were a grenade tossed into a tomato patch. The rancher got death threats from wolf advocates. Martorello had to hide his wife in a hotel. Wielgus soon received a call from Ron Mittelhammer, who was dean of the College of Agriculture, grilling him about whether he made false statements about the Profanity incident. He was ordered by the dean not to speak to the public about wolves without coordinating with the university.
Internal emails that I obtained through public-disclosure requests reveal university administrators deeply worried about blowback from the uproar; they were in repeated contact with Republican legislators and the cattlemen’s association as they coordinated their response. Within days W.S.U. issued an unusual news release that excoriated its own faculty member, apologized to the community and “disavowed” Wielgus’s statements. He received a “letter of concern” — his first of two in the next several months — reprimanding him for inappropriate conduct. Later, at the urging of Kretz and other Republican legislators, W.S.U. had a professor of statistics and mathematics analyze Wielgus’s 2014 wolf study for error. (The university found “no evidence of research misconduct.”)
W.S.U.’s swift action after the Profanity incident earned high praise from Wielgus’s opponents in the Legislature. “You guys really kicked ass on that wolves thing,” Mark Schoesler, the powerful anti-wolf leader of Republicans in the State Senate, said in a call to Chris Mulick afterward, as recounted in an email from Mulick to W.S.U.’s president. Mulick added, “His wife does some work of the Cattlemen’s Association and he joked that their dinner conversations have been much improved.”
Back on the mountain, a low slid across the sky like a dirty blanket. Wielgus finished yet another cigarette and looked around. His voice quavered. “I tried my best, Blackie,” he said, naming a wolf that had been killed. He kicked at the ground again, turned away, groaned. I thought I was seeing an act. Then I realized that’s just Wielgus: passionate, at times almost to the point of self-parody. I’m not sure whether to trust Wielgus, from the time he shows you his gun to the ongoing melodrama that makes you wonder whether he’s putting on an act. Were you tempted to come down one way or another on his trustworthiness? Or did you like the tension in the ambiguity? I’m gratified you felt that way. I did want readers to feel a bit conflicted about Wielgus, because that’s how I felt about him, and because the reality of wolf politics is that assigning white and black hats is too simplistic. And as I said, Wielgus is complicated. That’s one thing that drew me to his story – though I had no idea just how complicated he was at the get-go. I liked him and found him very charismatic… But I quickly found him to be an unreliable narrator. I did speak to numerous other researchers about Wielgus; they appeared in various drafts but do not appear in the final story. They generally praised his work on cougars and bears, or at least found it sound. But as I write in the story, I think many would agree that there are problems with his 2014 wolf study.
I thought of what I had heard a few times from people who knew Wielgus, both fans and critics: He was a man bearing a valuable message: that with more deterrence, you can reduce livestock deaths. Handled more deftly, the incident could have been a chance to talk more constructively about how to manage wolves better going forward, said Paula Swedeen, policy director of Conservation Northwest, whose group is trying to bring back wolves while bridging the divide with ranchers.
What doubly frustrated some people about the Profanity incident is that, after years of mistrust and false starts, the warring sides finally had reached a tentative détente and were starting to move forward, albeit carefully, they said. But by attacking the rancher and getting some things wrong, Wielgus “ruined the credibility of his own work and the students’ work,” Swedeen said.
A gallery of Herefords had gathered in a half-ring behind us as Wielgus and I spoke, and now they watched him as if they were some mute Greek chorus.
“[Expletive] this place,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.” When those cows arrived, I’m thinking the writer in you must have rejoiced. What a great happenstance! It was both comical and poignant to look up from the notebook and see those moon-faced cattle in a semicircle around us. I like these odd moments in reporting. I don’t necessarily know what they mean, but they seem worth mentioning.
Wielgus and I climbed into his pickup and jounced back toward the blacktop. I asked him what he would do next. He said he didn’t know. Six months earlier, his lawyer filed a complaint against W.S.U. alleging numerous violations of academic freedom and requesting “corrective actions” including a retraction of its public excoriation of him and reimbursement of pay lost when his grants were shifted out of his lab. The complaint was prelude either to a lawsuit or a settlement. Though Wielgus continued to teach, he knew his career at W.S.U. was over. He would see if he could find other work at other universities, out of state, he said. He still had research he wanted to do. (In the spring, Wielgus would resign his post and drop the complaint in exchange for a $300,000 settlement.) Some of the research recently completed in his lab — work done by graduate students and potentially useful to all sides — now sat on the shelf, too toxic to touch, at least in Washington. Everyone had lost, including taxpayers who funded the work.
The state’s wolf population, meanwhile, was growing by about 30 percent annually. This spring the federal government announced that it was reviewing the status of Canis lupus in the Lower 48 and, by year’s end, could issue a proposal to revise the wolf’s status, possibly to reduce protection for the animal. But for now, and despite occasional poaching, sanctioned shooting and rough-and-tumble human politics, the wolves were doing pretty well.Why did you end the piece the way you did? Is it meant as a simple update on the wolves after we know what happened to the humans in this saga? Or is it supposed to make the point that all the human friction hasn’t yet hurt the wolves? This was a tricky story to conclude. Wielgus’ story ends, but the conflict rolls on. Meanwhile, the wolves generally are doing rather well population-wise. But as someone pointed out to me, ‘Wildlife management isn’t really about managing wildlife. It’s about managing people.’ Human desires ultimately dictate if, and where, animals remain on the landscape. And that’s something we still can’t agree on.