Panel exonerates lynx biologists
A pair of lynx researchers in Washington State who submitted unauthorized fur samples to a government lab were not trying manipulate the study, an independent scientific panel recently concluded.The Wildlife Society, an international association for wildlife professionals, determined the researchers did not try to conceal the control-sample submission or influence the outcome of the survey. Their intent was fully consistent with the society’s code of ethics, the report concludes.But the damage may already have been done, at least in terms of public perception. Despite the fact that there was no attempt to skew the survey, the story was widely misreported early on, according to a media watchdog group. That raised questions about the credibility of government research programs.Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently critiqued press coverage of the story, claiming that most publications misreported the facts, basing their coverage primarily on politically motivated comments made by elected officials.The wildlife biologists say they were trying to test the lab’s accuracy after getting inconsistent results. But the common scientific practice of submitting blind samples was not part of the guideline for the lynx survey.Some politicians subsequently attacked the scientists, spinning the story to undermine public confidence in federal wildlife science, according to a report recently issued by FAIR.Often, the charges against the biologists came in the context of broader attacks on the Endangered Species Act, according to Kim McKeggie, a spokeswoman with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibilities, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog and whistle-blower protection group.After looking closely at many of the articles, FAIR concluded it was a case of "journalistic ethics gone awry." The group accused the Washington Times of running a series of one-sided front-page articles that repeatedly misstated the facts to support a "conspiratorial story line."The Associated Press subsequently picked up the story, spreading the myth that biologists planted fur in the forest and that parts of the forest could have been closed off as a result. National, regional and local publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Rocky Mountain News, Weekly Standard and U.S. News and World Report, all published similar reports that included inaccurate and misleading information, according to FAIR."These reports mark the final chapter in a disgraceful saga of ugly politics fueled by shoddy journalism," says Eric Wingerter, PEER’s national field director. "We hold faint hope that these vindications will be reported with the same fervor as the original false charges."Wingerter says that politically motivated attacks against the lynx researchers could intimidate other government scientists working on environmental issues.The controversy hit the public eye in late 2001, when results of a U.S. Forest Service investigation showed that, in 1998 and 1999, several researchers involved in a nationwide lynx survey submitted fur samples that were not collected as part of the study.The facts at the heart of the matter were overwhelmed in the political firestorm that ensued, as Congress held hearings and other scientists stepped into the fray to defend the lynx researchers."It is absolutely appropriate for Congress to investigate if government biologists perpetrated fraud, especially since decisions based on their research could affect millions of acres of public land," says Blain Rethmeier, press secretary for Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis, explaining that it’s essential to find out if public policy is being influenced by "agenda-driven" scientists."Sadly, government and media elements, who trump this matter as abuse of the Endangered Species Act, say nothing of the far more prevalent abuse when political and commercial interests and their Interior allies deny appropriate classification and protection of threatened species," says Ron Nowak, a retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist.Local Forest Service officials say the case in Washington does not undermine the survey results in the Rocky Mountain region and that there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the research in Colorado has been tainted in any way.Canada lynx are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various state wildlife agencies to safeguard habitat for the cats throughout the Rockies, parts of the Cascades and even into parts of northern New England."We could not think of anything that we need to change," says Joan Friedlander, regional manager of the USFS threatened and endangered species program. "We are diligent in our oversight of the program and we’ve completed an audit to make sure everyone is following the protocols. We have a highly dedicated and professional staff."
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