WASHINGTON – Lawmakers want an investigation into whether government wildlife biologists reported finding lynx fur in two national forests to keep people out of the areas.
The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking the rare Canadian lynx to determine how many there are and where they live. Data from the four-year survey will be used to determine how best to protect the lynx, which is classified as "threatened."
During the 2000 sampling session, biologists sent the lab doing DNA tests for the project three fur samples they said had come from parts of the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state. Those areas are normally not home to lynx, which roam mostly along the northern border of the United States, plus Utah and Colorado.
The seven biologists later admitted they planted the samples, saying they did so to test whether the lab could accurately identify the lynx fur.
The cats, 3 feet long and 40 pounds at their largest, have brownish-gray fur, black-tufted ears and prey on snowshoe hares. Efforts to protect lynx habitats are under way in 57 forests in 16 states.
House Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen, R-Utah, and Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., chairman of the House forests subcommittee, called the action "grossly inadequate punishment given the magnitude of this offense."
They said if it is found that the intent was to skew the study, the biologists should be fired. None of them remain in the lynx survey program. Six were reassigned and one retired.
"These offenses minimally amount to professional malfeasance of the highest order," they wrote Tuesday in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whose agencies administer the program.
Hansen and McInnis want a review of all data collected through the lynx recovery program before any land management decisions are made.
Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth said the fur fiasco is embarrassing, but said it never threatened any habitat with closure to the public.
"If they would've said there were lynx there when there wasn't, all that does is initiate more looking to see if there are lynx there," he said. "It wouldn't have caused a whole bunch of area to become lynx habitat."
Without additional scrutiny on the data collected, no assurances can be made that the "lynx recovery effort is grounded in science, rather than in the fraudulent behavior of unscrupulous field officers," Hansen and McInnis wrote. "Ultimately, the credibility of the lynx survey is now hanging by a thread."
Some proposed changes to protect the lynx include limiting the thinning of forests to improve the habitat for the snowshoe hares and to restrict snowmobiling and some other winter activities in the forest.
The congressmen have also asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to look into the matter and will convene hearings on the issue before McInnis' committee early next year.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said the agency is confident the lynx count has not been tainted.
"We don't believe that there was an intent to submit these results to skew the results of the survey, but it could have compromised the entire survey and forced us to do it all over again," he said.
Don Amador, western representative for the land-use group, Blue Ribbon Coalition, called the lynx survey another instance of "agencies being less than honest with the American public."