No criminal intent found in lynx study, but probe criticizes biologists' judgment

By Robert Gehrke
The Associated Press
Seattle Times

WASHINGTON March 2, 2002 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who sent fur samples to a lab claiming they were from a rare lynx showed "a pattern of bad judgment" but didn't break the law, an Interior Department investigator said yesterday.

The Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking the rare Canada lynx to determine how many there are and where they live. Data from the four-year survey will be used to determine how best to protect the lynx, classified as "threatened."

During the 1999 and 2000 sampling seasons, seven federal and Washington state biologists sent fur samples from a captive lynx and from a bobcat pelt to the lab doing DNA testing. The biologists claimed the samples came from the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state, where lynx do not normally live.

The biologists, who were not identified, said they were testing the lab's ability to identify lynx hair, which had been challenged in a congressional report.

But key members of Congress demanded an investigation, arguing that the biologists' actions could have tainted the study. It also could have closed parts of the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state, where the biologists said they gathered the samples, to protect the wildcat's habitat.

Yesterday's report by Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney found no criminal intent on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists involved and said the Justice Department had declined to prosecute them.

But in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton summarizing the report, Devaney said the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to administer "meaningful punishment," which he said showed the service's "bias against holding employees accountable for their behavior."

And he called the decision to give the employees involved a cash award, praising their work soon after the incident, "an incredible display of bad judgment."

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., whose House Resources forest subcommittee will hold a hearing on the lynx study next week, called some of the findings alarming.

"The idea that these people got a merit-pay raise, in conjunction with the same lynx study they undermined no less, quite literally boggles the mind," he said.

An earlier Forest Service report said the bogus samples were caught and did not taint the lynx study. Six of the seven biologists who planted the samples have been removed from the lynx survey, and one has retired.

Norton has asked two top Fish and Wildlife Service officials to review the 3-inch-thick report and recommend remedies, department spokesman Mark Pfeifle said.

The Canadian lynx is a 3-1/2-foot-long wildcat that weighs up to 40 pounds. It has brownish-gray fur and black-tufted ears and preys on snowshoe hares. Efforts to protect lynx habitats are under way in 57 forests in 16 states.

 

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