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Lynx-fur furor focuses on science role
Seattle Times ^ | 12/30/2001 | Lynda V. Mapes

Posted on 12/31/2001 9:30:22 PM PST by jennyp

Government field biologists have unwittingly detonated the explosive tension between science and politics in land-management decisions throughout the West.

At immediate stake is the credibility of surveys to determine how widespread the threatened Canada lynx is. But the controversy also is being used by some to claim science is being manipulated to support unpopular political decisions.

Lynx chronology


1998: The U.S. Forest Service launches a survey for lynx that is later discredited because the results were ruined in the lab.

1999: The U.S. Forest Service launches another lynx survey, with a new lab and a new protocol.

1999: A state biologist sends hairs from a captive bobcat to a lab as part of the survey, saying he wants to test the accuracy of the lab. So-called positive control samples, while not unusual in science, were outside the bounds of the survey and unauthorized.

2000: State and federal biologists send in hairs from captive lynx, saying they want to test the accuracy of the lab. In September, one of the biologists notifies the lab of the samples.

February 2001: The Forest Service launches an investigation, which determines the biologists acted without authorization, but were trying to confirm the accuracy of the lab, not skew the survey. The biologists are counseled, but not disciplined.

December 2001: news of the investigation breaks, and further inquiries are called for.

Source: Seattle Times

The firestorm came after some field biologists in the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sent unauthorized hair samples from captive lynx — and from a bobcat pelt — to a federal lab in 1999 and 2000.

The survey is being used by federal scientists to detect the presence of the threatened Canada lynx. It will play a part in determining whether logging and wintertime motorized recreation should be restricted to protect the animals.

The biologists said they were testing the laboratory's capabilities. Sending in control samples is a common practice in lab testing. But the biologists, all working in Washington state, were acting outside the rules of this particular survey. And their actions were reported inaccurately in stories widely re-circulated by the media this month.

The Washington Times, for example, reported biologists planted lynx hair on posts at lynx survey stations in the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests. The paper said that if a whistle-blower hadn't acted, the fake samples would have shut down public lands to protect lynx that weren't actually there.

Investigators say biologists mailed to a lab, in vials, unauthorized control samples from captive cats. Several told their supervisors about it, and one notified the lab itself.

Even if undetected, the samples would not have shut down the woods. The federal survey is just one piece of a much more complicated land-use policy calculus.

Investigators so far have found the biologists weren't trying to skew the study, but only wanted to test the accuracy of the survey lab because of questionable results in the past. The unauthorized samples sent to the lab were segregated from valid field samples, so the survey was not skewed, according to the Forest Service.

But Barbara Weber, associate deputy chief for research and development at the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., saw real damage from what was done.

"It affects the reputation of us as an agency overall because we say we are a science-based organization," Weber said. "If people are tainting data and planting data, that speaks to the integrity and credibility of the agency as a whole and any policy we make with that data. It is huge, beyond what they thought could be an outcome of this."

Earlier survey planted doubts

The Canada lynx was listed in March, under the federal Endangered Species Act, as threatened in 16 northern states. Officials from Washington state to Maine are trying to determine the range of the animal and efforts are under way to improve lynx survival in 57 national forests.

Lynx are rare, inconspicuous and primarily nocturnal. They leave little sign, and avoid human activity. Unlike salmon, grizzly bears and other federally-protected species, relatively little is known about lynx in the contiguous United States. Even the basics, such as reliable population estimates, don't yet exist.

The U.S. Forest Service launched one lynx survey in 1998, which was discredited because the results were ruined at the lab.

After the current survey was launched in 1999, with a new lab and a new protocol, some biologists said they sent in hairs from captive cats to find out if the new lab in Missoula, Mont., could correctly identify them.

Jeff "Bernie" Bernatowicz, a Washington state fish and wildlife field biologist, said in an interview he told his supervisor that he sent in hairs from a captive lynx.

"I didn't trust the results of the lab, so I wasn't going to tell them I was sending in a blind sample. A 1998 study came out with the results of lynx up and down the Cascades, and that didn't seem logical. Most of us doubted it. How could there be so many lynx?"

Weber said she knew the faulty 1998 survey had shaken the confidence of field biologists.

"People in the Forest Service I think are confused as to who to believe and what to believe, and if I were them I would be confused too," Weber said. "I think it played a large role in terms of people taking things into their own hands."

But their doubts were no excuse, Weber said.

"If they had concerns, they could have raised those concerns with the supervisors and asked, 'How does this study work, and how can we know that the lab is accurately recognizing samples?' "

In a signed affidavit collected by federal investigators, Bernatowicz stated his supervisor knew he sent in the sample — collected from a lynx that had escaped from a Union Gap fur farm and was being held in a cage until its owner could get it.

The supervisor expressed "some concern," but then allowed him to send in the sample, Bernatowicz stated.

Federal field biologists working in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington also sent in unauthorized control samples, snagged off a wire fence around captive lynx at a wildlife park. A state fish and wildlife biologist also sent in a hunk of a bobcat pelt in his office.

When the results for the bobcat pelt came back as unidentifiable, the biologist, Tom McCall, didn't try to keep its origin a secret. He laughed and said, "Those samples were taken from old Harry."

His supervisor — whose name was blacked out in the investigative report — said of the unauthorized control samples:

"I didn't think it was any big deal. This was due to the fact that I did not believe Mr. McCall was trying to tamper with the integrity of the survey by creating a false impression that lynx existed in the survey. In retrospect I can understand why submitting false information to the survey could color any other information sent in."

The first the lab learned of the unauthorized samples was in September 2000. A Forest Service biologist on his last day on the job before retirement phoned the lab to say biologists were concerned about how the survey was going, and were sending in fur from captive lynx as a control sample.

Workers at the lab called the Forest Service, which launched an investigation last February that was completed in June, and determined that the survey was not skewed. The biologists were counseled, but not disciplined.

Credibility undermined

The incident wounded the scientific credibility of state and federal agencies that turn to science to defend politically unpopular decisions, from turning off irrigation ditches for salmon to silencing chain saws for spotted owls.

For some, the incident fueled long-held suspicions.

"There are always questions about the validity of science in any of these studies, that it is biased one way or another," said Nicholas Haris, western-states representative of the American Motorcyclist Association, which advocates for off-road vehicle access to public lands. "Everybody seems to back their decisions with science, but a lot of people feel a lot of these things are predetermined before it starts."

The scandal metastasized in just one week this month after results of the Forest Service investigation were leaked to the media after congressional briefings.

Members of Congress and secretaries of two federal agencies have called for investigations by inspectors general as well as the General Accounting Office. Washington state lawmakers also have called for a hearing.

Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a politically moderate think tank based in Missoula, said the reaction should come as no surprise, given the extent to which agencies and user groups have resorted to the mantra of "good science" to do the heavy political lifting in natural-resource disputes.

"I've become more and more perturbed by the way that people on both sides of the political fence are always calling on science as the final arbiter on natural-resource decisions," Kemmis said. "To me it's either cynical or naïve."

Appeals to science are often an effort to short-circuit or skip the hard, political work of building collaboration, Kemmis said.

Even biologists can't forget they work in a political context, said Jeffrey Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Koenings blamed the scandal on arrogance among biologists who either didn't appreciate how their actions might be interpreted by others, or didn't care. "We make hard decisions that affect people's lives and if you are going to affect someone's life you have to make sure it is predicated on hard scientific evidence and that you have the resource in mind, and not someone's personal agenda. That's what so damaging about this, it calls all that into question," he said.

Koenings has apologized for the incident, which he said was isolated.

The scandal will undermine support for species-recovery efforts unless investigations restore the agencies' scientific credibility, said Rep. Jim Buck, R-Joyce, Clallam County, chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

Credible science is the only effective ammunition in conservation battles, Buck said. It is the only way to accurately scope the nature and extent of environmental problems, discern an appropriate response, and sell it politically to an often wary public, Buck said.

"It's the only thing you have to hang your hat on."


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The biologists said they were testing the laboratory's capabilities. Sending in control samples is a common practice in lab testing. But the biologists, all working in Washington state, were acting outside the rules of this particular survey. And their actions were reported inaccurately in stories widely re-circulated by the media this month.

The Washington Times, for example, reported biologists planted lynx hair on posts at lynx survey stations in the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests. [thread here] The paper said that if a whistle-blower hadn't acted, the fake samples would have shut down public lands to protect lynx that weren't actually there.

Investigators say biologists mailed to a lab, in vials, unauthorized control samples from captive cats. Several told their supervisors about it, and one notified the lab itself.

So, is this a story of corruption by gov't scientists, or a case study of how bad reporting can create a scandal out of nothing?

I don't know yet, but the initial stories claimed the scientists had placed lynx hair on the scratching posts out in the wild. This would've clearly been an attempt at fraud. But now it looks like they simply put control samples into some of the sample containers they sent to the lab.

In fact, it sounds like the field biologists did this because they were skeptical of the labs in light of the discredited 1998 study that had claimed there were lynx as far south as Oregon. Unfortunately, all I've seen on every lynx thread here on FR is cynical riffing by the uninformed on the original claims of fraud. Doesn't anybody here have any hard facts about the biologists in question? Does anybody here know if sending a control sample to a lab is good procedure in a case like this? It sounds like it would be to me. (Apparently their only sin was to do this on their own, in violation of the protocol for the study. Discipline them for that, OK. But where's the fraud?)

Then somehow the story gets to the press & gets mutated from "skeptical scientists overstep bounds" to "SCIENTIST FRAUD!!!" Incredible sloppiness by Audrey Hudson (Wash. Times reporter) if this article's characterization of the incident is true.

I guess there's going to be Congressional hearings on this case. (Sheesh!) Well, at least the truth will come out, presumably.

1 posted on 12/31/2001 9:30:22 PM PST by jennyp
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To: jennyp, Carry_Okie, redrock, kattracks, kitchen, lowbridge, backhoe, blackie, GrampaDave, SierraW
More than that, Jenny Dahling.

More like control of land by corrupt bureaucrats.

Following is a part of a FReepmail i just received that discusses the situation. one of the addressees on this post sent it. He has my profound gratitude. Read and learn, Jenny.

Mark, do you want to weigh in here?

Saw the thread, but I'll review for updates. It is a local issue because of the plan to turn the Routt NF into a lynx study area.

Several years ago, the FS and the CO Division of Wildlife studied the forests and determined that there was no chance of success here. The last lynx was trapped before WW I, and there haven't been any snowshoe rabbits for about as long. I saw a snowshoe rabbit in the White River NF about 20 years ago and almost fainted. Anyway, it seemed that the lynx issue was settled until last year. I lost my contact info, but the gist was that, at a public meeting, the FS announced that they were going to make the Routt a lynx study area. When the audience pointed out that there was nothing for them to eat, the FS replied, "Ya, so what?" It isn't really about lynx; it's about banning motorized vehicles, chainsaws, hunting, etc. I hope for a connection between the criminal/feds in WA and the local decisions, as a way to get them set aside.

Guess who hobnobs with the FS types and conducts rulemaking meetings behind closed doors and then offers them to the "public" via a consensus building technique (a la the &quo