Biologists caught in the crosshairs



In December, headline writers were delighted by the metastasizing controversy over samples of lynx fur, purportedly collected from two national forests in Washington state. "Fur furor," one paper called it. "Fur flies," wrote another.

Government agencies, though, found the fracas far from funny. Seven wildlife biologists, both federal and state, submitted hair samples to a lab during 1999 and 2000 as part of a national survey for the elusive and now formally threatened Canada lynx. The biologists said they submitted hairs collected from a captive lynx, a rubbing post at a wildlife park, and a bobcat pelt in order to test the lab's ability to distinguish legitimate wild lynx hair. Several had informed their superiors of the "blind" samples.

A Forest Service investigation completed in June 2001 found that the faux fur had been isolated from other samples and had not skewed survey results, but the biologists were reprimanded for failing to follow protocol for submitting blind samples. One biologist retired, and six were reassigned.

The story finally leaked into the press in December, after the Forest Service briefed congressional staffers on the situation. Western Republicans loudly expressed alarm and outrage, claiming that the biologists were trying to build a case for curtailing human activity on the national forests. "If they hadn't been caught, you might have seen entire forests shut down on a false premise," said Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.

Although Forest Service officials dispute Craig's claim, Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis, R, has called for an investigation by the inspectors general of the departments of Agriculture and Interior and has scheduled a congressional hearing for early February.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Allen Best