Canada lynx study scientists defended - Group says state biologists met code of ethics

Dan Hansen
Staff writer The Spokesman-Review

Washington - 7/20/02 - They've been vilified by some in Congress, some in the Legislature, some of their peers, and editorial writers nationwide. In the eyes of government critics, they stand as proof that "bad science" rules natural resource decisions.

But two Washington biologists were cleared of wrongdoing in the eyes of their peers within an international organization of wildlife scientists.

And a media watchdog group recently issued a report that the story of a lynx study gone awry was blown out of proportion by journalists and commentators.

The case "shows the media's pack-like penchant for jumping on the first juicy storyline to appear in print," Colorado journalist Paul Tolme wrote for the liberal watchdog group FAIR, which stands for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

The issue involves seven of the 500 scientists studying Canada lynx in the United States. The elusive cat was added to the Endangered Species List in 2000; its range must be known before the government can take steps to protect it.

Researchers placed baited scratching posts in the woods to gather fur that could then be analyzed by a DNA laboratory in Montana.

The seven state and federal biologists broke study protocol by submitting a total of six false fur samples, from a captive lynx and a stuffed bobcat named Old Henry. They did it, they said, to test the lab's ability to accurately identify the rare cats.

Some of the biologists told their supervisors what they were doing. Others let study leaders know, after the samples had been submitted. Others indicated in their field notes that the samples were false.

The Forest Service investigated the incidents, "counseled" the biologists and banned them from the study. The General Accounting Office, the U.S. Senate and the Washington Legislature also looked into the matter.

No one has shown any proof that the biologists were trying to sway the outcome of the study. Agencies involved say that checks and balances would have thwarted any such effort.

Now, a board of inquiry for The Wildlife Society has reviewed the actions of two of its members who were among the biologists that submitted false samples. That organization, whose 9,000 members are wildlife biologists and managers, wanted to know whether the pair violated its code of ethics.

Among other things, that code calls on members to show "the highest standards of integrity and conduct."

Tom McCall of the Washington Department of Wildlife and Raymond Scharpf of the U.S. Forest Service "exhibited poor judgment," the panel concluded earlier this month.

But "the two biologists' reasoning -- to ensure that data resulting from the (study) were accurate and reliable -- was consistent with TWS code," the board of inquiry wrote.

The Wildlife Society report likely will not blunt the biologists' critics. "Lynx fur," like spotted owls, has become a mantra for those who mistrust government agencies charged with managing natural resources.

For instance, the episode was repeatedly mentioned during meetings on whether a Pend Oreille County dam should have to meet costly new environmental standards.

"Look at the scientists ... on the lynx issue. They lie and cheat but don't lose their jobs," one woman wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will rule on the dam issue.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a lobbying group that represents snowmobilers, off-road motorcyclists and the like, is using the biologists' actions to motivate members. It is just one example of "agenda-driven scientists" using biased or inadequate studies to close the woods to motorized users, the coalition contends on its Web page.

Among the news media, the conservative Washington Times was the first to report the lynx controversy, with a December story that claimed the biologists had planted fur in the woods.

Had their actions gone undiscovered, the newspaper reported, "the government likely would have banned many forms of recreation and use of natural resources," under the assumption that lynx exist where they likely do not. Later stories quoted Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and other Western Republicans saying much the same thing.

The Times' "one-sided" reporting relied heavily on opponents of the Endangered Species Act, FAIR contends.

"To give the appearance of balance, (the Times' reporter) quoted the National Wilderness Institute, a think tank with an anti-environmentalist bent," the watch-dog group states in its report.

Other media, including The Spokesman-Review, followed with stories of their own. FAIR contends that the Associated Press repeated some erroneous elements of the Times story, as did editorial writers for the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Times, the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report.

Tolme praised reporters for The Seattle Times and Outside magazine for accuracy.

Contacted this week by e-mail, Tolme said he did not review Spokesman-Review coverage of the lynx issue.

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