Debunking Lynxgate

As lawmakers accuse seven government biologists of fraud, the truth is drowned out by the headlines

Apr 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

"THE ONLY THING we were doing was trying to get to the truth," says Mitch Wainwright, a 46-year-old Forest Service wildlife biologist based in Amboy, Washington. Instead he got an unwanted starring role in the most bizarre environmental flap of recent memory: Lynxgate.

Details of "the great biofraud," as the The Washington Times has dubbed the affair, first emerged just before Christmas. Wainwright and six other state and federal wildlife scientists in Washington State allegedly "planted" clumps of wild lynx fur in the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee national forests. The intent, say their accusers, was to trigger the protections that are imposed when a threatened species like the Canada lynx is found living in a new area, namely closure of the forest to recreationists and loggers. For their roles in a green conspiracy that seemed worthy of Oliver Stone, Wainwright and five colleagues were reassigned to other programs—one other retired—and were told to keep their mouths shut. Wainwright was very reluctant to speak to Outside, fearing not only for his job but also for the future of all endangered-species programs in the United States.
Why? Because industry groups, pundits, and conservative lawmakers—led by Republican House Committee on Resources chairman James Hansen of Utah and Scott McInnis of Colorado, the Republican who chairs the subcommittee that oversees national forests—are using the lynx controversy to launch wide-ranging attacks on endangered-species policies past, present, and future. "There is so much fear out there about how [the Endangered Species Act] works," says McInnis spokesman Blain Rethmeier. Then again, at least some of the fear has been inspired by McInnis himself. Last year, after four wilderness firefighters perished in a blaze in Washington State, he charged that Forest Service officials may have been culpable by delaying a decision allowing a helicopter to scoop water from a river containing threatened fish. The charge was later proven false.

It's all pretty rousing stuff, but the real untold story is that the great lynx biofraud is baloney. Outside interviewed 25 scientists, investigators, and policy makers familiar with the incident, and reviewed all the relevant reports. What emerges is not a scientific scandal but a case study in media-amplified demagoguery. There is no evidence whatsoever to support either a conspiracy or a cover-up. The scientists didn't "plant" lynx fur in the forests. They didn't plot to invoke the Endangered Species Act through falsified data. And even if they had, it wouldn't have worked, because any evidence of lynx would have to be confirmed with further research before new management decisions could be made.

Lynxgate's selectively told tale of environmental skullduggery has so angered some biologists that they've started using the M word. "It's McCarthy politics all over again," says Elliott Norse, a founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that encourages biodiversity research. "It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

To understand this fracas and why it has staying power, it helps to know a little bit about the threatened Canada lynx, a cousin to the bobcat found in Canada, the Rockies, and across a northern swath of the United States. The cat first landed at the center of controversy in 1998, when ecoterrorists cited the need to protect its habitat as justification for burning down $12 million worth of facilities at the Vail ski resort. But our story begins the following year, in 1999, when an interagency team of American biologists began a three-year, 16-state survey to determine where in the nation the cat still roamed, and where it didn't. The team's primary scientific tool is a simple rubbing post, wrapped in carpet, laced with attractant scent, studded with small tacks, and placed in the woods. Drawn by the odor, critters brush against the tacks and leave behind hairs, which are then collected and sent to the Carnivore Conservation Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana. If a submitted sample turns out to be lynx, that means the cat exists in the woods where it was collected.

The problem was that in previous lynx studies, biologists had complained that the lab's results were screwy. In one case, technicians reported that submitted hair samples came from feral house cats—though the fur in question was taken from the middle of a wilderness. (The lab says it has clear protocols in place to correctly identify samples.) So in 1999, and again in 2000, several biologists working on the survey on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife independently decided to test the men and women in white coats by sending them hairs from a captive lynx. One biologist even sent in hairs plucked from "Harry"—a stuffed bobcat that he keeps in his office.
In September 2000, somebody at the Forest Service sounded an alarm about the use of these "unauthorized" control samples. A departmental criminal investigation cleared the biologists of any wrongdoing, but a second report, prepared by a Portland, Oregon, private investigation firm and completed last June, notes that the biologists claim to have done everything aboveboard, except for a small detail: The national lynx study doesn't authorize using control samples, whether they're taken from Harry or a captive lynx. The scientists shrugged, and the whole thing landed in a binder on a shelf.

In mid-December, someone tipped off The Washington Times, and the paper subsequently ran with news that "wildlife biologists planted false evidence of a rare cat species in two national forests." Other papers followed suit with bombastic editorials, and the fur really began to fly. Congressman Hansen called for a top-to-bottom federal review of the lynx survey. The scandal, he warned, threatened the very economy of rural America. "This hoax, if it hadn't been discovered," Hansen said, "could have wrecked some people's way of life."

Mitch Wainwright and the other alleged conspirators, whose names were blacked out of the private investigator's report, could do nothing but sit tight as a maelstrom began to rage around them. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversee Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service respectively, each put their Office of Inspector General on the case. A congressional hearing was scheduled for February 28. But while Wainwright declined to discuss specifics, citing the investigation, he flatly denies the conspiracy charges.

"There was no collusion," he says, "no agenda."
The strangest thing about the so-called planted fur samples is the assumption that saws and snowmobiles will fall silent wherever lynx are discovered. In fact, there are virtually no cases in which the presence of lynx has changed management policies. Lynx certainly didn't stop the Forest Service from approving the Vail ski area's planned expansion into what Colorado state biologists considered prime lynx habitat on the White River National Forest.

When presented with this fact, Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for Hansen's committee, would only refer back to the private investigator's findings. "There is clearly no smoking gun in that report," she allows. "But there are unanswered questions." She declined to elaborate, citing the pending congressional investigation, except to add that the biologists' use of unauthorized control samples was "a questionable way to conduct a study." Wainwright acknowledges that he erred by not following the chain of command. "We did things wrong," he says, citing their failure to clear the control samples with the head of the lynx program. (The biologists' immediate supervisors were aware of the control samples.) The small point is well taken, but the bigger picture here should give pause to anyone concerned over how easily politics trumps science inside the Beltway.

"Anything endangered-species related is now being called into question," says Eric Wingerter, national field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a green-tilted group that includes federal land managers. And the conservative press rushed to provide those critics with a soapbox: "The tendency of true believers," sniffed an opinion piece in The Weekly Standard, "is to defend any means to their end. "Indeed, post-Lynxgate, some lawmakers have called for a review of an unrelated federal grizzly-bear research program, while others are rehashing dubious stories that federal biologists faked data that touched off the spotted-owl wars of the eighties. "The people with the agenda aren't the biologists," says Wingerter. "And the biologists are scared to death."

For his part, Forest Service scientist Mitch Wainwright, who is now working on timber-sale evaluations, does plead guilty—"of naïté." But as for charges that he and his colleagues were engaged in a crusade, he is emphatic. "Nothing," he says, "could be further from the truth."

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