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Just before Christmas, The Washington Times reported that seven government biologists had been disciplined for involvement in the falsification of evidence during a federal survey of the Canada lynx. The lynx is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
According to reports, three samples of lynx fur from captive animals were planted on rubbing posts in the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state, and then submitted for DNA analysis.
The seven biologists reportedly admitted to planting the samples. Two work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), three for the U.S. Forest Service, and two for the state of Washington. Agency officials declined to name them, citing privacy concerns. The incidents, which occurred during the 2000 election year, were not exposed until the story broke in December.
Reaction came fast and furious. Washington State Representative Jim Buck said his constituents were hopping up and down mad What has made us the most angry is we have watched friends lose their homes and property because of the ESA in the name of species preservation. U.S. Representatives James Hansen and Scot McInnis expressed alarm and outrage.
Secretary of Interior Gale Norton said she was deeply troubled by the allegations, and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said they called into question the scientific integrity of the survey. The acting director of FWSthe federal agency responsible for administration of the ESAcalled it a violation of professional standards. I deeply regret this incident, he said, and will take any further steps necessary to preserve the public trust.
The motives are in dispute. The Forest Service believes the biologists were just testing the laboratorys DNA analysis capabilities, and FWS said it doesnt think there was an intent to skew the results of the survey. But skeptics believe these are just more cases of biological fraud, intended to force blanket ESA restrictions on land where habitat is absent, especially since fake endangered species evidence has been reported here before. An incident in Oregon a few years ago reportedly involved phony wolverine evidence, and in 1999 a consulting biologist on a federal lynx survey reportedly found lynx fur in the Oregon Cascades. That area is well south of known lynx range, and when the samples couldnt be validated the survey was discredited.
The lynx has also been the focus of ecoterrorists. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) cited impact on lynx habitat when it set fire to a Vail ski resort in 1998, causing $12 million in damage. No arrests were ever made. And in the summer of 2001, ELF spiked hundreds of trees to protect lynx from a timber saleagain in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Many of the skeptics have personal experience with abuse of the Endangered Species Act. Originally designed to protect animals from extinction, the ESA has become the most virulent property-control tool in the environmental arsenal. The tactic of force-listing species through litigation and then using them to lock down land is a proven one, and the lynx is a perfect example of how it works.
Shortly after passage in 1973, environmentalists realized how powerful the ESA could be as an agent of land control if its authority could be expanded beyond endangered species. Over time they successfully broadened the Act to cover distinct population segments and simple genetic variants, and then litigated to apply the ESA to animals that range widely over landscapes they covet. Notorious examples include the spotted owl in the Pacific northwest, marbled murrelet and desert tortoise in California, jaguar in the southwest, and golden-cheeked warbler in central Texas.
The lynx was ideal for this purpose, and in 1991 environmentalists petitioned FWS to list it as endangered. The petition was denied, and in 1994 the Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned again. The agency again declined. When environmentalists filed suit, a court ordered it to reconsider. In 1997, although by its own later admission it had little additional information on the lynx, FWS reversed course. It decreed the Canada lynx in the lower 48 states to constitute a distinct population segment under the Actin spite of the apparent genetic homogeneity of the speciesand proclaimed that it warranted listing.
From the biological perspective, the lynx is neither threatened nor endangered with extinction and it never has been. Far from it. Its geographical range includes most of Canada and Alaska, and it is still widely hunted and legally trapped. Indeed, total trade in wild Canada lynx from 1995-1999 reached 18,566 skinsnot including trophies.
More Bad Science
In August 2000, a Canada Lynx Conservation Assessment and Strategy was prepared by the big four federal land management agenciesFWS, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service. The strategy committed to using the best scientific information available, while noting that on many issues no empirical information exists. In these cases, assumptions or inferences were made based on the collective experience and professional judgment of team members, in consultation with other lynx experts.
The problem was that assumptions and inferences arent science, and the judgment of the biologists couldnt be trusted. The 1998 lynx habitat survey had already been discredited when it found lynx evidence all over the Cascades, and a new three-year lynx survey started in 1999 wasnt much better. According to retired FWS biologist Jim Beers, it was rigged from the word go; it was full of bad biology and bad politics. It gave the federal government carte blanche to go after ski resorts, stop road building and go after ranchers and tree cutters.
Impact on the People
The lynx survey is important. It will be used to develop restrictions on the use of dozens of national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and BLM properties, from the Rockies to Puget Sound. According to the lynx strategy, risk factors to be restricted include logging, pest control, fire exclusion, winter sports, ski resorts, backcountry huts, campgrounds, roads, trails, grazing, oil and gas operations, mineral development, reservoirs, agriculture, trapping, predator control, shooting and utility corridors. The strategy also proposes a landscape-level ecosystem management approach to lynx conservation that includes new private property restrictions.
The latest incidents again validate charges of bad science in administration of the ESA, and further damage the credibility of the agencies involved. For 20 years, the Forest Service and FWS have suffered declining professional credibility as they were greened by environmental ideologues through political appointment and agency recruitment. The result is years of technically questionable ESA decisions, rationalized in the absence of scientific evidence under the fig leaf of best available data.
Fish & Wildlife has the biggest credibility problem as administrator of the ESA. But the Forest Service has to implement the Act on 300,000 square miles of multiple-use national forest8.5 percent of the countryand has awesome impact on those who use the peoples lands.
Reestablishing credibility wont be easy. As punishment, the agencies reportedly counseled the seven biologists involved for their actions and banned them from the lynx study. Six were reassigned and one has retired. Representatives Hansen and McInnis called it grossly inadequate punishment given the magnitude of this offense, and Idaho Senator Larry Craig said, If in fact it occurred, and theres clear evidence it did, people ought to be fired.
More broadly, the two agencies will have to determine the extent of biological fraud in their respective agencies and quickly excise the cancer. They are also faced with the unhappy prospect that for the foreseeable future, opposing attorneys all over the American landscape will be aggressively pursuing whether the perpetrating biologists were ever materially involved with other species now under litigation.
The ESA is a license to play God. It takes private property for public use without just compensation, and it strips the people of their right of access to the federal lands. Because it is so virulently effective in destroying rural America, those empowered to administer it must be held to exceptionally high standards of accountability.
Whether FWS and Forest Service can ever regain the trust of the American people is unclear. What is clear is that the prostitution of science to environmental ideology is never excusable, especially by agencies with such breathtaking power over the lives of families and rural communities.
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