Lynx Lies

(This column was first published in the February 18, 2002 Buffalo News.)


The lynx is, to me, the handsomest of North America's wild cats. Bigger than a bobcat with soft grayish fur, a streaked facial ruff that makes its head appear wider than it is, tall hair tufts on its erect ears, and outsized feet that help it chase its usual prey, snowshoe hares, it is a most attractive animal.

To differentiate our lynx from its Old World cousins, biologists have named it the Canada lynx. And for us in the east, that name is appropriate. Formerly ranging south through this region and into Pennsylvania, they are now extremely rare in the eastern United States. Still widespread in the boreal forests of Canada, only a few are to be found in northern Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and northern New England. An attempt to reintroduce them in the Adirondacks in 1989 unfortunately seems not to have been successful.

But in the west a few dozen lynx are still to be found in Washington and Oregon. And there they have suddenly become the center of a major flak.

The conservative press has trumpeted a story about Fish and Wildlife Service employees who, as one article had it, "conspired to defraud the public by planting lynx hairs into a wide ranging habitat survey to back some sort of secret, illicit environmental agenda." Wall Street Journal writer Kimberley Strassel called this "the latest Clinton scandal" and claimed that "it underscores everything that is wrong with Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service."

The Washington Times reported that "federal and state employees were caught planting Canadian lynx hairs" on posts at lynx survey stations in the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests and went on to say that if a whistle-blower hadn't acted, the fake samples would have shut down public lands to protect lynx that weren't even there. Other Times articles described "a new breed of scientist and scholar to whom ideological or political agendas are more important than truth" and suggested that "environmentalists will say anything for the cause of land control through abuse of the Endangered Species Act."

There were calls by Republican senators for hearings and for major changes in state and national wildlife policies.

When the federal Forest Service looked into the matter, it found:

·      Control samples, for which careful records were kept, were submitted to test the accuracy of lab evaluations. No attempt to keep this procedure secret was involved and the lab was informed that this was being done. If errors had been detected, they would have called for additional sampling, not for policy changes.

·      No hair samples were planted in the field.

·      Interviews with independent biologists indicated that finding lynx evidence where none was expected would only have led to a broader sampling effort.

·      Federal agencies have not promoted lynx protection. Quite the contrary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly opposed efforts to list the lynx as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. It was litigation against the agency that led to this listing.

·      Despite the fact that the biologists were found not to have violated any law nor to have attempted to influence survey results, they were disciplined for their failure to keep appropriate administrators informed.

The Washington Times called the sources of that summary "left-leaning watchdog groups," but invited them to buy space in the paper to post their response.

So there you have it: Biofraud or myth, you decide for yourself.

I know where I stand when it comes to a choice between "Wise Use" politicians and their journalistic supporters on one hand and biologists on the other.

I stand with the scientists.-- Gerry Rising

Readers who are interested in this and other information about carnivores should keep posted on the Carnivore Ecology and Conservation website and at least temporarily to links related to this matter.