Government agency scientists 'counseled', then removed from future lynx studies after submitting fake samples

Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Seattle P-I

SPOKANE -- A Forest Service investigation into misleading hair samples sent to a laboratory concludes the action did not undermine the ongoing rare lynx survey, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

The Spokesman-Review obtained the 2001 investigative report into seven state and federal scientists' roles in submitting the false hair samples in a national lynx survey in 2000.

The investigation was completed for the Forest Service by Stephanie Lynch, an independent investigator from Portland, Ore.

The scientists were prompted by concerns that a laboratory could not tell the cat by DNA testing, but that doesn't excuse their actions, said Scott Mills, co-leader of the survey.

The scientists from Washington state said they wanted to test Mills' University of Montana lab to see whether its DNA work was accurate.

"If I had an employee who did this, they wouldn't be working for me any more," Mills said Tuesday.

Lynch found that one U.S. Fish and Wildlife researcher, stung by the well-publicized inaccuracies of an unrelated 1998 study that used a different genetics laboratory, limited her participation in the national survey.

Other scientists grew skeptical when the Montana lab in the national survey showed at least one feral house cat was living in a Washington wilderness area.

The biologists who submitted the six false samples were from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their identities have not been released.

They were "counseled" and removed from future lynx studies.

The national lynx survey was designed to establish the range of the Canada lynx, which was added to the Endangered Species list in 2000. Its range must be known before the government can take steps to protect it.

For the past three summers, more than 500 scientists in 12 states have monitored 13,000 pads scented with beaver castoreum and catnip oil and left in the woods.

Animals that rub against the pads leave fur on protruding carpet nails.

UM's Carnivore Conservation Genetics Laboratory has tested hundreds of such samples since the survey began in 1999. Most are determined to be from bobcats, cougars and other relatively common wildlife.

So far, no lynx have been found in areas where they're unexpected, Mills said. In Washington, they've been found in the Okanogan National Forest.

Critics of the Endangered Species Act have questioned whether the scientists were trying to show that lynx have a large range. That, critics contend, could lead to broad restrictions on logging, snowmobiling and other activities thought to harm the cat.

Finding lynx fur in an unexpected spot would only launch other efforts to verify the cats' existence, Mills said. The DNA tests would be discounted unless biologists could verify the existence of lynx through live trapping and other means.

Since first disclosed in December, the case has been the subject of intense media coverage. The state House and Senate natural resources committees conducted a hearing on the matter last month, but took no action. The U.S. House of Representatives plans a hearing this month.

The Forest Service report indicates that rather than being secretive, the scientists told some of their colleagues they were submitting "control samples" to test the lab. Some mentioned using fur from captive lynx in their field notes, indicating they weren't worried that someone might learn of their actions.

Mills said the seven scientists are guilty of "fabricating data."

While it might not have been the scientists' intent, there was potential to taint the study, Mills said.

The bobcat fur was unidentifiable by the lab because the hide had been tanned. Nevertheless, it became part of the survey data, recorded as unidentifiable fur from the Wenatchee National Forest, Mills said.

The fur from captive lynx was correctly identified.

But Mills withheld it -- and all samples from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest -- once he heard that false samples had been submitted.

Mills said the process used by his lab "was completely, exhaustively, scientifically verifiable ... This genetic test is diagnostic and solid."

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