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  March/April 2003 Issue
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Sierra Magazine

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Political Animal

By Kim Todd

If there were as many lynx in the forests as in the headlines, the species’ future would be assured. But the cats remain rare, while the controversies surrounding them proliferate.

In 1998, three buildings and four ski lifts at the Vail ski resort in Colorado went up in flames just after its owner had launched an expansion into possible lynx habitat. The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the fires, saying they acted "on behalf of the lynx." The arson was widely condemned by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, but on right-wing Web sites, the lynx became a symbol of environmental extremism.

More recently, the controversy has centered on the National Lynx Survey. In the three-year study launched in 1999, biologists put thousands of scented scratch pads on trees in national forests in 16 states. Animals would rub up against the squares of carpet, leaving hairs behind. Field biologists then sent the pads to a laboratory in Missoula, Montana, where the strands would be tested for lynx DNA.

In 2000, six biologists from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife gathered hair from captive lynx, placed it on scratch pads, and sent it in to make sure the lab could accurately identify the species. A previous study, now discredited, had found lynx in areas where the National Lynx Survey did not, and the biologists were concerned about the discrepancy. When one called to alert the Missoula lab about the control samples, the Forest Service launched an investigation into the mislabeled hairs.

In a story in late 2001, the conservative Washington Times suggested that the biologists planted lynx hair in national forests to try to halt logging. Other outlets picked up the story, buying the newspaper’s spin. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the incident "biofraud" and bemoaned the "Clinton-era culture that puts ideology ahead of science." On the television newsmagazine 20/20, John Stossel called the biologists who sent the hair "zealots."

Investigations by the General Accounting Office and the Forest Service found no evidence of fraud and noted that many of the employees told their supervisors about the control samples. However, since the blind controls weren’t called for in the study’s protocol (the lab procedure had already gone through a blind control test), the biologists were removed from the project. In Congress, "the lynx hoax" became a cause célèbre for lawmakers trying to dismantle the Endangered Species Act. Former representative James Hansen (R-Utah) repeatedly condemned the survey and the biologists, using the incident to garner support for an anti-ESA bill. Under the guise of applying "sound science" to the act, the bill would delay adding new species, stymie citizen petitions for listing, and require independent scientific review of decisions to protect plants and animals–but not of decisions to deny protection.

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