The fur is flying over a disclosure that government employees on Washington public lands sent misleading hair samples from rare lynx to a lab.
The action has raised suspicion by timber and recreation groups about the government's intentions in a study of the rare animal's range.
"It jeopardizes the whole process of trying to protect the lynx in the first place," said Glenn Warren, president of the 2,300-member Washington State Snowmobile Association. "We always like to see good science prevailing."
Seven state and federal biologists, who have not been identified, admitted that fur from captive Canadian lynx was added about a year ago to samples from the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests, which are not known to have populations of the reclusive cats.
They said they wanted only to assure the accuracy of DNA analysis by a laboratory, said Joel Holtrop, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C.
"It's a way of testing if a lab knows what it's doing," Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lacey, said Monday. "It was not an attempt to put lynx where they're not."
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also participated in the study. An investigation into the added fur samples was made as soon as it was discovered and the scientists involved were taken off the project, agency officials said.
"We recognize the inappropriate behavior of these individuals, and we don't want to see it happen again," Holtrop said. "This was unnecessary and inappropriate activity, and we don't support it in any way."
The Forest Service delayed making the matter public because it was a personnel issue, said Phil Mattson, the agency's acting group leader for range, watershed and fisheries in the Pacific Northwest.
Fur samples were taken to check on distribution of the lynx, listed as a threatened species in 16 states since March 24, 2000. Officials from Washington state to Maine are trying to determine the range of the animal and to improve survival rates on public land.
"This is a very, very isolated incident," Zimmer said.
"There is no evidence or indication that anything similar to this has occurred on other species," Holtrop added.
The only confirmed lynx habitat on federal land in the state is in the Okanogan National Forest. Discovery of the lynx in the Gifford Pinchot or Wenatchee forests could have led to restrictions on snowmobiling, logging and other activities.
Felis lynx canadensis is about 2 to 3 feet long and weighs 10 to 40 pounds with thick brownish gray fur, broad furry paws, black-tufted ears and a short, black-tipped tail. Its principal prey is snowshoe hares.
Snowmobiles pack snowdrifts, aiding other predators that compete with lynx for prey, and hares rely on thickets of lodgepole pine for habitat.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber group, expressed concern about the planted fur although he wasn't sure it represented an attempt to falsify results.
"There's already been some funny business going on with the lynx," West said.
A few years ago, he said, a Forest Service contractor in Oregon reported finding lynx but the findings could not be validated and the contractor was not paid for the study.
"This calls into question everything they are putting out about the lynx. Who knows what's right and what's wrong?" said Adena Cook of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national motorized-recreation advocacy group in Idaho Falls, Idaho. "There is big dissatisfaction that the system is rigged."