- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton yesterday called for an inspector general to investigate why federal biologists planted false evidence of a rare wildcat in two national forests.

"I am deeply troubled by allegations that Fish and Wildlife Service employees, along with employees from other federal and state agencies, deliberately submitted false samples to the laboratory analyzing data for the Canada lynx survey program," Mrs. Norton said.

"I have asked the Interior Department's inspector general to immediately look into the facts and circumstances surrounding these allegations," she said.

The Washington Times reported Monday that government officials planted three separate false hair samples of Canadian lynx, a species protected by the Endangered Species Act, on rubbing posts being used to identify lynx habitats in Washington state.

Left unchecked, the falsified evidence could have forced the closure of roads to vehicle traffic in national forests. Also banned in lynx habitat are off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes, livestock grazing and tree thinning.

Two of the officials worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department, three officials worked for the Forest Service and two employees worked for a Washington state agency.

After a colleague exposed the falsified samples, the employees said they were not trying to manipulate or expand the lynx habitat but were attempting to verify the accuracy of the lab DNA analysis.

DNA testing of two planted samples matched that of a lynx living inside an animal preserve. The third DNA sample matched that of an escaped pet lynx held in a federal office until its owner retrieved it, federal officials said.

Congressional sources said last night the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, will also ask its inspector general to investigate. The hair samples were planted in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Wenatchee National Forest.

Marshall Jones, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a memo to employees yesterday, directed them to fully cooperate with the investigation.

"I deeply regret this incident and will take any further steps necessary to preserve public trust," Mr. Jones said.

House Republicans on Tuesday asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a comprehensive audit to determine whether the false sampling contaminated the three-year study of the lynx scheduled to conclude this year.

Mr. Jones said: "Their unilateral decision to breach established, peer-reviewed research protocols was a violation of professional standards that could potentially compromise the credibility of the entire survey."

The GAO investigation was requested by Republican Reps. James V. Hansen of Utah, House Resources chairman; and Scott McInnis of Colorado, forest and forest health subcommittee chairman.

Western lawmakers say their constituents are outraged that federal employees would tamper with science surrounding the lynx, a threatened species.

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