Biologists in “missing lynx” uproar didn’t think they saw a puddy tat
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2002:
OLYMPIA, Washington–A two-month national furor about
alleged falsification of evidence by seven field biologists studying
lynx range apparently started because several of the biologists did
not believe a feral domestic cat could survive in the Gifford Pinchot
and Wenatchie National Forests.
Almost any experienced feral cat rescuer could have told them
that feral domestic cats thrive wherever they find small mammals or
birds to hunt and adequate cover, from the equator to inside the
Arctic and Antarctic Circles.
But instead of considering the range and habits of feral
cats, reported independent investigator Stephanie Lynch of Portland,
after probing the case for the Forest Service, the seven biologists
allegedly conspired to test the accuracy of DNA testing done for the
lynx study by the Carnivore Conservation Genetics Laboratory at the
University of Montana. They submitted six samples of hairs from
captive lynx to the lab to see if the staff could recognize lynx hair
when they saw it.
Sure enough; the lab staff could and did.
“The biologists who submitted the false samples were from the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service,
and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” wrote Spokane
Spokesman-Review staff writer Dan Hansen. “They were ‘counseled’ and
removed from future lynx studies. The federal agencies have refused
to identify them; their names are blacked out of the 2001
investigative report [by Lynch] obtained by the Spokesman-Review.”
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jeff
“Bernie” Bernatowicz, Lynch found, had been burned in 1998 by DNA
identification errors made by a different lab. In that case the lab
reported identifying hairs from lynx among fur samples gathered from
scent pads throughout the Cascades range. “Flavored” with beaver
castoreum and catnip oil, the pads collect hairs from any animal who
rubs against their slightly sticky surface.
Skeptical that so many lynx turned up in DNA sampling when
none were ever seen, reported as trapped, or roadkilled,
Bernatowicz tested the lab by sumitting fur gathered from a lynx who
belonged to a fur farm.
“I didn’t trust the results, so I wasn’t going to tell them
I was sending in a blind sample,” Bernatowicz told Seattle Times
staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes. He was apparently scolded by his
supervisor, but colleagues were doing the same thing.
In 1999, Hansen wrote, “Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife biologist Tom McCall submitted three samples from a stuffed
bobcat called ‘old Henry.'” McCall said that the samples had come
from the Wenatchee National Forest.
McCall reportedly claimed that he had submitted the samples
from “old Henry” at the suggestion of his boss, biologist John
Musser. But Musser did not acknowledge his role.
By the time the most recent case was exposed by news media,
in mid-December 2001, the use of planted control samples to test the
laboratories was close to a common proceedure along the western
fringe of the habitat of lynx, officially recognized as an
endangered species since 2000. The control samples had the effect of
preventing incorrectly identified hair specimens from possibly
becoming the basis for federal decisions to protect “lynx habitat”
where no lynx actually existed.
Although more than 500 researchers have collected hairs from
scent pads for study since 1998, none yet have found lynx where lynx
were not known to be. The only known lynx habitat in either
Washington or Oregon remains the Okanogan National Forest.
None of that stopped an explosion from prominent wise-users,
including Interior Secretary Gale Norton, House Resources Committee
chair James Hansen (R-Utah), House forests subcommittee chair Scott
McInnis (R-Colorado), and Richard Pombo (R-California), a longtime
vehement critic of the Endangered Species Act. Allegations were made
that some of the biologists may have tried to plant evidence of lynx
to prevent logging and/or use of recreational vehicles.
Responded Lea Mitchell, director of the Washington chapter
of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “The only
conspiracy and fraud being committed here is that of special
interests trying to take down the ESA and the public employees who
work on it.”