Gov’t researchers caught planting false ESA evidence

Published March 1, 2002

Congressmen from western states called on the federal government to mount an investigation after government researchers were caught planting false evidence of endangered species in national forests.

The fraud was discovered when a U.S. Forest Service employee informed supervisors that five federal and two Washington State researchers had planted endangered lynx hairs in areas where the animals did not exist.

The researchers were conducting a four-year study of 57 forests in 16 states to determine the extent of endangered lynx habitat and what additional steps might be taken to protect the animal.

After learning of the allegations, the Forest Service conducted tests of the allegedly planted hairs and determined the hairs matched those of a lynx living in an animal preserve and of a pet lynx belonging to a federal employee.

Dangerous hoax

Had the fraud not been exposed, the planted lynx hairs could have led to sweeping land restrictions against property owners, recreationists, and workers in the affected regions. Among the potential restrictions are bans on skiing, snowmobiling, driving, logging, and livestock grazing.

“If they hadn’t been caught, you might have seen entire forests shut down on a false premise,” observed Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

“This hoax, if it hadn’t been discovered, could have wrecked some peoples’ way of life,” said James Hansen (R-Utah).

Representatives Richard Pombo (R-California) and John Peterson (R-Pennsylvania), the chairman and communications chairman, respectively, of the House Western Caucus, were especially critical of the incident in a jointly released statement.

“As Americans, we should have been astounded by the recent findings that federal officials intentionally planted hair from the threatened Canadian lynx in our national forests in order to impose sweeping land regulations. But in truth, many of us who come from rural America have grown accustomed to environmental activism prevailing over the rule of law and over the best interests of families and communities.”

Most surprising to members of the Western Caucus has been the apparent lack of meaningful discipline against the government employees. Instead of the federal government pressing criminal charges and/or terminating the researchers, the researchers kept their jobs and were reassigned to other projects.

“This lackadaisical approach to willful, unethical conduct is unacceptable, and we see no credible alternative other than to terminate the parties if there is convincing evidence that they knowingly and willingly planted unauthorized samples,” stated Pombo and Peterson.

The researchers claimed they had planted the hair samples, without informing their supervisors and in direct violation of research protocols, to test government laboratories’ ability to identify such fraud. Few observers bought the explanation. “That’s like saying, ‘We weren’t really robbing a bank, we were just testing to see if we could rob it,'” said Adena Cook of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national recreation organization.

Tip of the iceberg?

Had the researchers’ fraud not been discovered, the planted hair samples would have skewed the entire study and the course of future environmental programs. Yet government officials downplayed the possibility that any other hair samples may have been planted but gone undiscovered.

“I am committed to determining all the facts,” said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. “We should not allow an isolated incident to overshadow the hard work and dedication of our body of land-management professionals.”

Congressional and private observers, however, were not so sure the exposed fraud was isolated, either within the lynx program or within government research programs as a whole.

“This lynx debacle calls into question everything the Fish and Wildlife Service has done for the past eight years,” said Representative James Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the House Resources Committee. “It makes me wonder if past studies have been marred by sloppy or faulty research.”

“This goes to the fundamental principle of the Endangered Species Act and the credibility of the program,” said a Bush administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s logical to assume if the biologists did it in the case of the lynx, they could do the same with other endangered species.”

Rob Gordon, director of the National Wilderness Institute, noted many people working with endangered species issues have long suspected endangered species laws have been exploited and facts “fudged” to further other political agendas. “What is most disturbing, however, is to find that government scientists are faking studies to justify political goals,” said Gordon.

“I am convinced,” added retired fish and wildlife biologist James Beers, “that there is a lot of that [false sampling] going on for so-called higher purposes.”

Researchers sought hairs from grizzly rug

After reading reports about the lynx hoax debacle, a Washington state taxidermist came forward with evidence government researchers sought hairs from a grizzly bear rug to plant as part of a similar study regarding threatened bears.

The taxidermist, Jim Gintz, was putting together a bearskin rug when a Washington fish and wildlife biologist asked if he could purchase some bear hairs. The biologist stated he sought to use the hairs as a blind sample in a study.

Gintz, however, was not convinced. The rug he was making used hairs from an Alaskan grizzly bear. However, protocols require that blind samples be submitted only from areas in which grizzlies have already been reintroduced. Furthermore, the use of blind samples must be accompanied by the approval of the study’s lead biologist. Accordingly, Gintz was suspicious of the biologist’s story and refused to provide the biologist with any grizzly hairs.

Upon subsequently reading about the lynx hair fraud, Gintz contacted Washington State Representative Bob Sump, co-chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

“One can only wonder why the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife must rely on covertly obtained blind samples of grizzly bear fur when it could get an official sample from virtually any state or provincial wildlife office with a simple phone call,” said Sump.

“Suspicions confirmed”

Many western residents did not wonder at all about government endangered species practices.

“People here aren’t shocked in the least,” said Donna Thornton, a third-generation logger who runs a small family logging business. “People in the West have known for a long time that the Forest Service isn’t a scientifically ethical operation.”

“It’s ‘suspicions confirmed’ that a lot of this data is manhandled and cooked up,” added William Pendley Perry, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Tammi Jensen, vice president of Rural Voters of America in Whitehall, Montana, recalled suspicious activity in previous species issues. Jensen noted spotted owl counts were taken by listening to spotted owl calls rather than gaining visual confirmation of local owls.

“There were long-standing rumors that the conflict-industry advocates [environmental activists] had learned to make the calls and positioned themselves in the woods when the counts were being done,” said Jensen.

Bruce Vincent, president of Communities for a Great Northwest, based in Libby, Montana, recalled still more fraud. During a recent, unrelated grizzly bear count, local residents accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of using horse carcasses to lure bears into counting areas where the bears do not otherwise exist. The practice was deemed especially repugnant by local residents because bears quickly acquire a taste for horsemeat and thereafter are likely to approach homes and stables in search of a kill.

At first, according to Vincent, the Forest Service denied engaging in the practice. “Then, at the next meeting, a man from Idaho showed them pictures of horse carcasses where they were baiting bears,” he said. “So Fish and Wildlife said they wouldn’t do it again. But that hurt trust.”

“We know where bears cross the road,” added Thornton. “We know where the lynx is. We’ve had families living here for generations–we know where the wildlife is. So we know when they’re telling the truth and when they’re lying.”

“Unfortunately, the lynx biofraud is not an isolated event but an egregious example of a serious malady that has infected environmental regulatory agencies,” said Gordon.

Added Hansen, “If we get this wrong–if we shut down access to thousands of acres of public land because of endangered species that turn out to not even be there–we not only take away people’s enjoyment of these lands, but we wipe out countless jobs that relied on access to that land. We affect recreation, tourism, farming, ranching, logging, and more. We put people out of work.”

“We’ve worked in good faith with the Forest Service, and to find this out puts the entire process in question,” said Vincent. The evidence of fraud, he noted, reinforces Westerners’ opinion that environmental activist groups and the federal government are using the Endangered Species Act as a “bludgeoning device” designed to “move people from the landscape we love.”