Lawmakers want an investigation into whether government wildlife biologists planted lynx fur in two national forests to make it appear that the animals were present so that people would be kept out.
The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking the rare Canadian lynx to determine how many there are and where they live. Data from the four-year survey will be used to determine how best to protect the lynx, which is classified as "threatened."
During the 2000 sampling session, biologists planted three samples of lynx fur on rubbing posts in parts of the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state, areas not usually home to the lynx. Fur taken from such posts is used to indicate if lynx are in the area.
The seven biologists -- three from the Forest Service, two from the Fish and Wildlife Service and two from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife -- admitted they planted the samples and said they wanted to test whether the lab could identify lynx fur.
The cats, 3 1/2 feet long and 40 pounds at their largest, prey on snowshoe hares. Efforts to protect lynx habitat are underway in 57 forests in 16 states.
None of the seven biologists remains in the lynx survey program. Six were reassigned, and one retired.
House Resources Committee Chairman James V. Hansen (R-Utah) and Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), chairman of the House forests subcommittee, called that "grossly inadequate punishment given the magnitude of this offense."
They said if it is found that the intent was to skew the study, the biologists should be fired.
"These offenses minimally amount to professional malfeasance of the highest order," the congressman wrote Dec. 18 in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, whose agencies administer the lynx program.
Some proposed changes to protect the lynx include limiting the thinning of forests to improve habitat for the snowshoe hare and to restrict snowmobiling and some other winter activities. But Hansen and McInnis want a review of all data collected through the program before any land management decisions are made.
Without additional scrutiny of the data, no assurances can be made that the "lynx recovery effort is grounded in science, rather than in the fraudulent behavior of unscrupulous field officers," Hansen and McInnis wrote.
Forest Service Chief Dale N. Bosworth said the fur fiasco is embarrassing but did not threaten the closure of any habitat to the public.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said the agency is confident the lynx count has not been tainted.
"We don't believe that there was an intent to submit these results to skew the results of the survey, but it could have compromised the entire survey and forced us to do it all over again," he said.
Hansen and McInnis have asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to look into the matter and will convene hearings early next year.