Federal and state wildlife biologists planted false evidence of a rare cat species in two national forests, officials told The Washington Times.
Had the deception not been discovered, the government likely would have banned many forms of recreation and use of natural resources in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state.
The previously unreported Forest Service investigation found that the science of the habitat study had been skewed by seven government officials: three Forest Service employees, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and two employees of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The officials planted three separate samples of Canadian lynx hair on rubbing posts used to identify existence of the creatures in the two national forests.
DNA testing of two of the samples matched that of a lynx living inside an animal preserve. The third DNA sample matched that of an escaped pet lynx being held in a federal office until its owner retrieved it, federal officials said.
After the falsified samples were exposed by a Forest Service colleague, the employees said they were not trying to manipulate or expand the lynx habitat, but instead were testing the lab’s ability to identify the cat species through DNA analysis, said Joel Holtrop, a Forest Service official.
“Even if that is the case, it was inappropriate,” Mr. Holtrop said.
Forestry officials, conservationists and retired federal officials said they were outraged that the data were tampered with and said they are skeptical it was an attempt to test the lab.
“I would find the evil-twin argument more plausible,” said Rob Gordon, executive director of the National Wilderness Institute.
“That would be like bank robbers taking money from a bank and saying they were just testing the security of a bank, they weren’t really stealing the money. That’s beautiful, but I don’t think it will fly,” Mr. Gordon said.
Retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist James M. Beers called the false sampling amazing but not surprising.
“I’m convinced that there is a lot of that going on for so-called higher purposes,” Mr. Beers said.
The employees have been counseled for their actions and banned from participating in the three-year survey of the lynx, listed as a threatened animal under the Endangered Species Act. Federal officials would not name the offending employees, citing privacy concerns.
The lynx listing and habitat study began in 1999 during the Clinton administration and concludes this year. It was criticized by Westerners as a political move to impose restrictions on public lands.
Radical environmental groups felt the restrictions didn’t go far enough.
To protect the habitat of the felines, roads would have to be closed to vehicles, and off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, skis and snowshoes would have been banned. Livestock grazing and tree thinning also would have been banned.
“It was rigged from the word go; it was full of bad biology and bad politics,” Mr. Beers said. “It gave them [the federal government] carte blanche to go after ski resorts, stop road building and go after ranchers and tree cutters.”
When the Vail Ski Resort announced an expansion of trails into possible lynx habitat, the radical animal-rights group Earth Liberation Front (ELF) torched five buildings and four ski lifts in protest. The Oct. 18, 1998, fire caused $12 million in damage and was the largest act of eco-terrorism in the United States. No arrests were made, and the statute of limitations expired in October.
This past summer, ELF planted spikes in hundreds of trees to sabotage a timber sale and protect the lynx and spotted owls in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest one of the forests where the false samples were planted.
This isn’t the first time forestry officials have encountered questionable studies to identify the presence of lynx in the Northwest.
In 1999, a scientist hired by the federal government submitted lynx hair samples supposedly found in the Oregon Cascades, farther south than where the animals were thought to exist, said Chris West, spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council.
Federal officials spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to duplicate the finding but found no evidence of the creatures.
The hairs were never validated, the samples were thrown out, and the contractor was never paid, Mr. West said.
“These are cases of rogue biologists trying to influence natural-resources policy,” Mr. West said.
“There has clearly been some shenanigans going on here,” he said of the false sampling in Washington.
Forest Service officials say this year’s errant sampling was caught and therefore did not affect the integrity of the sample survey.
“We have looked at it carefully and feel the overall integrity of the sampling effort is in place, and the ongoing results will have valid scientific and sound results,” said Heidi Valetkevitch, Forest Service spokeswoman.
However, the incident has damaged the integrity of the federal agencies within their own ranks and in the communities they serve.
“It destroys the credibility of the hard work we are trying to do to track these animals,” said one retired Forest Service employee.
Mr. Gordon said the false sampling aggravates an already distrustful relationship between Westerners and the federal government.
“This revelation makes all the projects these offices and individuals were involved in suspect, and may merit review,” Mr. Gordon said.