A top official at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has warned Montana State University's president that the agency may have to end all cooperation with the university after an MSU scientist's study challenged the state's proposed wolf hunt.
Dave Risley, administrator of'FWP's fish and wildlife division in Helena, wrote an Oct. 14 letter to MSU President Waded Cruzado saying that FWP has worked closely with MSU for more than 60 years, but the relationship had been "marred by a pattern of conflict" over several years with Scott Creel, an MSU scientist who studies elk and wolves.
"By writing this letter, we hope to make you aware of this situation before the only recourse is to permanently and completely dissolve the financial and intellectual relationship between FWP and MSU," Risley wrote.
Risley's letter added that FWP doesn't want to go that route because both institutions have a lot to gain from a strong, collaborative working relationship. He suggested "a very simple solution" was to ensure both staffs are at least trying to collaborate, and he offered to meet with Cruzado.
MSU released FWP's letter at the request of the Chronicle, which argued it is a public document. At the same time, MSU made public Cruzado's Nov. 22 letter responding to Risley.
Cruzado offered to hold a one-day workshop between MSU faculty and administrators and FWP staff, with a mutually respected facilitator.
"Jointly, we could develop a stronger relationship based on better understanding of the objectives and constraints under which FWP operates," Cruzado wrote to FWP, "as well as a better understanding of the role of academic scientists at a land-grant university."
Asked if she saw FWP's letter as a threat to academic freedom -- the principle that universities should be able to present ideas, even if they're unpopular -- Cruzado said no.
"I welcome the letter as an opportunity to clarify our roles," Cruzado said, "and strengthen collaboration with Fish & Wildlife."
Cruzado's letter to Risley also noted that Creel's studies used "previously published data collected in part by FWP biologists ... and reached conclusions differing from what you believe are warranted by the data."
FWP's published information is available for anyone to use.
"The university feels Dr. Creel's research was appropriate and he was doing what a scientist is expected to do," Tracy Ellig, MSU news director, said. "At the same time, we want to work with FWP. We'd like to focus on the issues and not the individuals.
"We don't have any concerns with (Creel's) research," Ellig said. "It was peer-reviewed. It appeared in the scientific literature. It used previously published public data and ... the way he arrived at his conclusions was transparent. Other scientists could either back it up or disagree with it."
In a phone interview this week, Risley sounded conciliatory. He said FWP wasn't objecting to Creel's conclusions, but felt Creel had taken selected parts of FWP's data without understanding it and didn't work with FWP to avoid mistaken assumptions.
"I do think you owe it to the original researcher to consult about the interpretation of their data," Risley said.
"We wanted to get the attention of the university, of the president," Risley said. "In no way, shape or form would we want to stifle academic freedom. We were just looking for professional integrity."
Risley said his letter to Cruzado was not intended to threaten the university. He said his previous letter of complaint to Creel's department head received no response.
Risley said he felt "like when a kid throws a rock at a window" to get someone's attention and inadvertently "breaks the window." He said it had gone further than he expected. "I didn't expect to get a call from the Chronicle," he said. "We wanted to get it to their attention and see some action."
Risley said he was pleased with Cruzado's response and confident "we can put this behind us and move forward."
Study examined wolves' sustainability
Creel, 48, a tenured MSU ecology professor, studies the Greater Yellowstone's wolves and elk, as well as predators in Africa. Creel is widely known in Bozeman as a top runner and nine-time winner of the 20-mile Ridge Run.
On Sept. 29, Creel and MSU colleague Jay Rotella published a scientific study which the Associated Press reported on under the headline "Study: Hunt would halve Montana wolf population."
The study, published online by the Public Library of Science, said Montana could lose roughly 50 percent of its wolves under a hunting proposal submitted by FWP to the federal government.
The AP reported that while state and federal wildlife managers contend 30 percent of a wolf population could be killed and it would still bounce back the following year, Creel's analysis said the percentage that could be killed and still have a sustainable wolf population was actually lower, 22 percent.
Creel said the study used a computer model to analyze data from 21 studies of wolves throughout North America. The FWP data he used on Montana wolves had been published in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2009 annual report.
"The data say what the data say," Creel said. "The message they reveal may be inconvenient, but it's important to get the information out there and hope to have influence on policy."
The Associated Press story included comments from an FWP biologist, who said Creel's study was flawed because it failed to consider the birth of wolf pups in the spring, and from a Canadian wolf researcher at Trent University, Dennis Murray, who reached results similar to Creel's.
‘Good science and the public interest'
Risley's letter to MSU cited conflicts with Creel going back several years. He wrote that in 2006, FWP permanently severed its relationship with Creel and that earlier this year, Creel had accused FWP staff of unethical conduct.
Creel declined to discuss details about those charges, but said parts of FWP's letter were "misleading to flatly incorrect."
The news story on Creel's latest study brought sharp reaction from some readers who described wolves as "monsters" and accused Creel of being be pro-wolf.
Creel said that after a 2007 study, he was accused of having an anti-wolf agenda. That study found wolves have a greater impact on elk, beyond the numbers they directly killed. It found that pressure from wolves meant cow elk had a harder time getting enough nutrition though the winter to maintain pregnancies and so fewer calves were being born. FWP researchers did not agree with his conclusions, Creel said.
Creel said he had received messages of support from his bosses at MSU.
"Many of my colleagues and students at MSU have good, productive relationships with wildlife managers and biologists at FWP, and Mr. Risley's letter suggests that FWP will abandon these efforts if MSU does not deal with me in some way," Creel wrote to the Chronicle.
"I am confident in the support of my department head, dean, provost and president, so I am not concerned for myself, but I would hate to see this spill over to affect others."
Marvin Lansverk, MSU Faculty Senate chair, said he didn't have many details about the dispute, but if FWP is calling for more communication, that would be fine.
If FWP scientists disagree with Creel's conclusions, Lansverk said, "They have the right and obligation to respond with publications of their own."
However, Lansverk said, "If an administrator disagrees with scientific results, I think it would be inappropriate and detrimental to good science and the public interest to try to intervene or suppress publication of research or to put pressure on an institution to stop doing what universities do. I hope that's not what FWP is trying to do."
Risley, hired in August 2009 after 30 years with Ohio's wildlife agency, is in charge of fisheries, wildlife, law enforcement, communications and education. He reports to FWP Deputy Director Art Noonan, a Butte legislator and former Democratic Party executive director, and to Joe Maurier, FWP director and former college roommate of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.