By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian
"It's like a little pebble that gets rolling and starts the avalanche."
In 1999, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plucked hair from a stuffed bobcat -- known in his office as "Old Harry" -- and sent it to a research lab at the University of Montana, claiming it was hair collected in the Wenatchee National Forest as part of a nationwide lynx survey.
A year later, when confronted by a private investigator hired by the Forest Service, the biologist admitted submitting the phony samples, but insisted he was simply testing the lab's ability to identify a lynx by extracting DNA from a hair sample.
He was not, he said, trying to "plant" an endangered species in the forest.
The denial and explanation, however, came too late, said Kevin McKelvey, co-leader of the National Lynx Survey. "It began with this dumb cowboy behavior," he said, "with this little pebble."
"And now it's an avalanche."
On Wednesday, McKelvey and a half-dozen other scientists, investigators and government officials will testify before a congressional committee investigating why seven wildlife biologists in Washington and Oregon submitted phony hair samples to the lynx survey in 1999 and 2000.
In addition to the hair plucked from "Old Harry," biologists have admitted taking samples of hair from captive lynx at Northwest Trek in Portland, Ore., and from a pet lynx in Yakima, Wash. In each case, they placed the hair in vials and shipped them to Missoula, claiming they were legitimate samples collected from catnip-scented carpet pads placed in national forests.
Several conservative congressmen have accused the biologists of "bio-fraud" and "eco-terrorism" -- of trying to plant lynx on national forests where there are none, and thereby shutting down logging or other development.
In the biologists' defense, two public employee advocacy groups have countered with an attack on the lynx survey methods and the ability of researchers to distinguish between a lynx, a bobcat, a cougar and a domestic cat based on tiny samples of DNA extracted from hair.
Now comes the defense of the National Lynx Survey - by McKelvey -- and of UM's research lab by Scott Mills, its director and a wildlife biology professor in the School of Forestry. Mills, too, will testify before the House Resources Committee.
"I am worried that the actions of these few people who mislabeled samples are going to have ramifications for the very good work and the very high integrity that the vast, vast, vast majority of endangered species biologists have," Mills said in an interview at his lab shortly before he left for Washington, D.C.
The seven biologists -- who work for the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife -- were "absolutely wrong" to mislabel samples, Mills said. "It is inexcusable what they did."
"However, it does not reflect on all people in the National Lynx Survey and it certainly doesn't reflect on all biologists," he said. "These were aberrant cases of people who did wrong, and it shouldn't be used to generate a witch hunt of all biologists."
Mills said the protocol developed by UM's lab is "utterly diagnostic" for determining the identity of a cat species based on genetic analysis of hair.
"We were the first ones to develop the protocol to do this," he said. "There are patterns that always work. My involvement with the National Lynx Survey came after developing and exhaustively validating the protocol."
Beginning in 1998, Mills developed a method for extracting DNA from a strand of hair, then using a chain reaction -- called the polymerase chain reaction, and made famous during the O.J. Simpson trial -- to create more DNA.
"You take a tiny bit of DNA and amplify it many millions of times, so you have quite a lot more DNA," Mills said. The DNA is then broken into pieces and run through a gel - in a process that reveals a characteristic band pattern for each species.
"The band pattern for a lynx is characteristically different than a bobcat, which is characteristically different than a cougar or a domestic cat," he said. "You make sure that those patterns always work for your species, and that they don't ever indicate a different species. That's part of the validation process."
In his written testimony for the House Resources Committee, Mills said his lab tested 95 known samples collected across the range of species -- "to make sure that a lynx was always identified as a lynx, a bobcat as a bobcat, and so on."
There were also extensive "blind tests," where the lab technicians did not know the identity of the sample -- 87 such tests, some conducted at UM's lab, some at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore.
In every case, Mills said, the labs accurately identified the species, using his protocol.
When, in 1999, the National Lynx Survey began its work to identify the presence and extent of lynx in the continental United States, McKelvey turned to Mills. Biologists, working in the field and following detailed instructions, collected samples of fur from national forests in 12 states on hair-snaring carpet pads scented with catnip.
Cats -- lynx, bobcat, cougar or household -- smelled the catnip, found the carpet pads and rubbed against the protruding nails, leaving samples of their hair. After two weeks, researchers retrieved the pads, placed any hair in a vial, and sent both the vials and the carpet pads to McKelvey - whose office is at the Forest Service's Intermountain Research Station in Missoula.
McKelvey then delivered the collection to Mills, whose lab observes a "chain of evidence" procedure that rivals a crime lab. Every vial, carpet pad and field report is numbered and recorded. Every lab guards against any source of contamination. Everything the lab technicians do is documented.
"It's one of the best labs in the world," said Dan Pletscher, director of UM's wildlife biology program. "Scott Mills has a reputation around the world as being outstanding. We are just so lucky to have him at the University of Montana, and you'll hear that all over the country. His lab is absolutely clean."
However, in the weeks after Forest Service staffers briefed congressmen about the bogus field samples, the accused biologists -- whom the agency has repeatedly refused to name -- defended their actions by saying they were not properly trained, that the research protocol was casual and that they doubted Mills' ability to accurately identify lynx.
The phony samples, the biologists told agency and private investigators, were "blind samples" intended to "test the lab."
Then someone -- Mills does not know who -- wrote an unsigned editorial in the scientific journal Nature, suggesting that the controversy could have been avoided had his lab employed a more rigorous protocol. He responded with a rigorous defense, printed as a letter to the editor.
"The only potential smudge on the cleanliness of data in the National Lynx Survey at this point comes from submission of samples not in compliance with scientific protocol," Mills wrote.
"For a field worker to arbitrarily decide to test the lab by labeling a hair from elsewhere as if it were a field-collected sample corrupts the integrity of the data," he added. "By analogy, a medical field worker who surreptitiously contaminates a blood sample to test the rigor of the serological protocol during a wide-scale survey to assay a disease is not conducting a blind control, but is fabricating data that could lead to false conclusions about disease distribution."
"We were explicit in our instructions to the field personnel," Mills said in the recent interview. "We told them where to put the hair pads. We told them how to collect hairs off the pads. We told them how to fill out the data sheets and how to send in the samples.
"We gave them the gloves and the tweezers and the plastic bags -- everything."
Not once, Mills said, did any of the biologists call him or his lab or McKelvey and say they had concerns about the National Lynx Survey or the use of DNA analysis to identify lynx. "I don't even know any of their names," he said. "I've never talked to anyone."
"There's just flat never a justification for what they did," he said. "It doesn't matter what your concerns are. It doesn't matter what you don't understand. You carry out the protocol. If you have concerns, you contact people in charge of the study and you tell them you have concerns. But you never, ever, ever falsify data."
No one in Missoula knew about the fraudulent samples, in fact, until Raymond Scharpf, a wildlife biologist on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Vancouver, Wash., called and left a voice mail message on his last day in the office before retiring.
The message, left on the telephone of field coordinator Gary Hanvey in Missoula, said biologists "had some concerns about how things were going with the survey" and that some unauthorized hair samples had been sent to the UM lab as "controls."
Contacted at his home in Camas, Wash., this week, Scharpf said he would not discuss the mislabeled samples or why he was concerned about the National Lynx Survey. "I won't say anything about this until after the congressional investigation is over," he said. "I'm not going to be of any help to anybody."
Internally, the Forest Service has placed a gag order on its employees, referring all questions to Joe Walsh, in the agency's national headquarters. Walsh also would not answer questions about "this whole lynx survey."
"There is an investigation going on," Walsh said Tuesday. "We think the investigators should be able to do their work unimpeded."
In a written report to the Forest Service, private investigator Stephanie Lynch of Portland, Ore., said her interviews with the seven biologists revealed differing explanations for the bogus hair samples. One said he doubted the survey because it identified one sample as a domestic cat. Most, though, said the worries dated to an earlier -- separate -- survey by wildlife biologist John Weaver of St. Ignatius.
In 1998, Weaver reported five positive lynx hair samples taken from national forests in Oregon and nine from Washington. When the National Lynx Survey -- of which Weaver was not a part -- found no lynx in some of the same forests in 1999 and 2000, biologists wondered if the survey's laboratory methods could actually identify a lynx.
What the biologists did not know, though, was that Weaver's survey was later proven inaccurate. He actually found no lynx in 1998.
In an interview Tuesday, Weaver said a lab in New York apparently contaminated the hair samples he submitted after the 1998 field season. Subsequent tests by a Canadian lab showed the hair to be that of a bobcat and three cougars.
"We determined that DNA from a specific lynx sample in our lab in New York had contaminated the rest of the samples," Weaver said.
His corrective report, however, did not reach national forests in Washington and Oregon until late November 2001 -- long after the biologists had submitted the false samples. Long after the pebble had started rolling.
Weaver never had any association with the National Lynx Survey, McKelvey said. He did not use the protocol developed by Mills. So there was no link between the inaccurate 1998 survey and the work conducted since, Mills said. "But no one on any of these forests ever told us they had concerns -- no one," Mills said.
"And now we've spent an incredible amount of time trying to counter these inaccurate stories," McKelvey said. "Each of the stories is equally faulty. The truth is, there were some folks who did something that they didn't think would be of any consequence. But they shouldn't have mislabeled the samples, and their actions certainly were of consequence."
"I've talked to investigators from four congressional committees and two federal agencies," said Mills. "I spend several hours every day defending my lab and explaining why endangered species biologists aren't crooks, which is absurd for anyone to even suggest."
There have been suggestions that the mislabeled samples constituted "eco-terrorism" -- mostly by right-wing Web sites, although also by congressmen -- and that the incident proves that all sorts of other endangered species programs are bogus.
"The ramifications are huge," said McKelvey. "This has done grievous damage to wildlife biology as a profession. We need to repair the damage and get on with our lives, and we need to ensure that something like this never happens again."
"It's like a little pebble that gets rolling and starts the avalanche," he said. "It is a little pebble, and then some guys do some unprofessional stuff, and it's an avalanche."
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It's nice to hear the story from the other side. I'm tired of hearing the one sided yellow journalism we get so much of here (Thanks Charlie).