LOS ANGELES – The political fur is flying on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers want to fire a group of government biologists over a case involving the endangered Canadian Lynx.
Members of the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources, like co-chair Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., allege seven biologists planted fake evidence in order to expand the habitat for the endangered wild cat, which thrives in its native Canada but is scarce in the U.S.
An investigation of the case is underway.
"You can't lie when you're doing a federal study like this," said McInnis. "This is a clear planting of evidence. Frankly, if this were a criminal court, they'd be in jail."
But environmental groups say the real target of the probe is a federal law designed to protect endangered animals.
"What we're really concerned about is the politicians on the Hill who are launching an investigation using this as a tool to attack the Endangered Species Act," said John Koftiak, of the National Wildlife Federation.
Some government agencies are looking to reintroduce the lynx in 16 states. But McInnis and others contend environmentalists masquerading as impartial scientists planted feline hair samples in places in which the cat hadn't lived in an effort to bolster their case.
If the habitat boundaries are extended, it could close thousands of square miles of federal land to the public.
The U.S. Forest Service, which employs the biologists at the heart of the probe, admitted the error and apologized.
"We regret this incident and the actions of agency employees," said Phil Mattson of the Forest Service.
Other government agencies defended the actions of the scientists, claiming they weren't trying to falsify findings, but test the credibility of labs analyzing their results.
"This was an isolated event, a mistake committed by biologists who failed to follow proper scientific protocol," said Dr. Jeff Koenings of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Public access to federal land has already been restricted to protect species like the Coho Salmon and the Spotted Owl. Doctored evidence could have closed more forests to industry, agriculture and recreation.
The federal General Accounting Office is investigating the matter. But critics argue the incident proves the point they've been trying to make for years: that government activists manipulate science to support a political agenda, not the public interest.
"This stuff was planted, this was premeditated," said Washington state Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Republican. "This was more serious than, 'Oops, I made a mistake.'"
Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans contributed to this report.
William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.