Lynx fur 'hoax' story shows the power of right-wing media
Former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (3/27/02) condemning “scientific fraud” by environmentalists. His first example: “The December revelation that employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service had planted fake wild lynx hair in states where there were no lynx, so that the areas could be labeled critical habitat, and thus off limits to human use.”
Unfortunately, du Pont garbled virtually every aspect of the story. Perhaps he made the mistake of believing what he read in the newspapers–particularly right-wing ones.
Contrary to most news reports, the biologists did not “plant” fur in national forests, and they were not trying to–nor could they have–use the Endangered Species Act to “shut down” the forests for human use. The actual story, according to a U.S. Forest Service investigation, is that biologists for the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Washington–studying where (not whether) lynx live in the state’s national forests–sent unauthorized “control samples” of hair obtained from captive lynx and a stuffed bobcat to a DNA lab in 1999 and 2000. The biologists were skeptical that the lab would produce accurate results; they were suspicious of test results, ironically enough, because another lab had found more lynx than the biologists thought was likely.
Many studies use known control samples to check the accuracy of laboratories; the biologists documented their use of non-wild samples in their official lab books, so the results could not have been used to fool anyone. However, these controls were not authorized under the lynx survey guidelines, and thus were a violation of protocol. For breaking the rules, the biologists were internally disciplined and removed from the national lynx survey.
The Washington Times turned this incident into a crusade, dedicating 10 articles, two editorials and an opinion piece to this “biofraud” over the course of a month after breaking the story on December 17. Lynxgate illustrates the power of the Times–a newspaper founded in 1982 as a vehicle to promote the right-wing views of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church–to promote a conservative agenda and feed it into the mainstream media environment.
The Endangered Species Act has become a favorite target of conservative Western lawmakers in recent years. Property rights organizations and extractive industries that rely on access to federal lands have become increasingly critical of the law, which they say protects critters (most famously the spotted owl) at the expense of jobs. Republican congressmen with an avowed dislike of the Endangered Species Act fed the Washington Times‘ coverage by calling the actions of the biologists a scandal and repeatedly misstating the facts.
The Times’ Audrey Hudson broke Lynxgate with a front-page piece headlined “Rare Lynx Hairs Found in Forests Exposed as Hoax” (12/17/01), citing “officials” as the source for her allegation that biologists had planted lynx fur. “Had the deception not been discovered, the government likely would have banned many forms of recreation and use of natural resources in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state,” her story falsely asserted. The one-sided article quoted a variety of conservative government and non-governmental officials, many with a dislike of the Endangered Species Act or federal land management policy. To give the appearance of balance, Hudson quoted the National Wilderness Institute, a think tank with an anti-environmentalist bent.
On December 19, the Times followed up with a story that led with Western Republicans demanding that the federal biologists be fired for trying to influence land-use policy. A quote from Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho) typified how the Times allowed critics of the Endangered Species Act to misstate the facts: “If they hadn’t been caught, you might have seen entire forests shut down on a false premise,” said Craig.
The “false premise,” actually, is that a few fur samples could “shut down” forests–a claim repeated throughout Times coverage. In truth, the existence of lynx would have to be verified by live trapping and other measures before any changes in management would take place, a process that could take years. Even the proven presence of lynx would not close the forests; recreation and even logging goes on in forests inhabited by lynx. But presenting such facts does not serve the conspiratorial storyline.
Fueling the flames
The Washington Times kept running more stories (12/20/01, 12/22/01, 1/3/02), featuring Interior Secretary Gale Norton and others demanding investigations. On its editorial pages, the Times (1/8/02) wrote about the “extremist environmental ideology” the case illustrated, and an opinion piece (1/17/02) decried Lynxgate as evidence that “government scientists fake studies in order to control environmental policy.” Only on January 18, one month into its coverage, did the Times finally quote several individuals who tried to defend the biologists.
In a bizarre twist, two groups that defended the biologists–Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics–said they were contacted by a Times advertising salesperson who offered to sell them full-page ads for $9,450 to rebut the editorial staff’s critical stories. Times general manager Richard Amberg described the call as “a mistake that shouldn’t have happened” (Washington Post, 2/4/02).
But the paper kept up its drumbeat, fueling the flames with this December 21 report: “The admission that employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Washington State falsified data confirmed what many rural Westerners believe: Agencies are doctoring species and habitat studies to stop logging, ranching and mining on the federal government’s vast land holdings.”
Actually, the use of unauthorized control samples “confirmed” nothing more than the fact that scientists don’t always follow procedures properly–and that federal agencies have procedures for disciplining those who don’t. But the Washington Times‘ stories, widely circulated in the West, helped to increase mistrust of the Endangered Species Act and federal wildlife officials. One individual who saw the Times series became suspicious when wildlife officials asked for a fur sample from a grizzly bear pelt. He reported this incident to a state lawmaker, who reported it to the Times (1/7/02) as evidence that biologists were trying to falsify a grizzly study. The accusation was false–and retracted by the Times on January 16–but it showed that the bogus accusations were having an impact.
Jumping for juice
Lynxgate also shows the media’s pack-like penchant for jumping on the first juicy storyline to appear in print. Associated Press picked up the story (12/18/02), leading with the accurate information that Western lawmakers were calling for investigations. But by citing the erroneous accusations of representatives like Scott McInnis of Colorado and James Hansen of Utah without skepticism, the news service helped spread the myth that biologists had “planted” fur in the forest and that public lands had nearly been closed.
Newspapers across the West repeated the allegation that the biologists “planted” lynx fur: “Norton Wants Fur-Fakery Probe,” trumpeted the Rocky Mountain News (12/21/01). The Seattle Times ran an angry editorial condemning “Lynx hairs, lies and spin” (12/19/01). “When the stakes are high, some people will be tempted to cheat,” scolded the Rocky Mountain News (12/28/01).
Opinion writers for national publications used Lynxgate to bash environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act. Kimberley Strassel, editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal (1/24/02), opined that Lynxgate illustrates how environmental laws can be twisted to further a political agenda. The Weekly Standard (1/28/02) and U.S. News and World Report‘s website (1/19/02) also ran commentaries that bashed this misuse of science for political ends.
While many got the details wrong, Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times (12/30/01) and Daniel Glick in Outside magazine (4/1/02) accurately deconstructed the story and what it shows about the politics of federal land management decisions. Clearly, there is great mistrust of federal land managers and the Endangered Species Act by many Westerners, and the causes for that mistrust deserve investigation. But the institution that has earned the most mistrust from the Lynxgate fiasco is the U.S. press.
Paul Tolme is a freelance environmental journalist who writes from Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.