December 20, 2001
Statement from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Chief Scientists Regarding the Submittal of False Data for Interagency Lynx Study
John Pierce, Chief Wildlife Scientist
Tim Quinn, Chief Habitat Scientist
Jim Scott, Chief Fish Scientist
The purpose of this communication is to provide the facts surrounding the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) involvement in the submittal of false data for the interagency lynx study, discuss how a good scientific approach should have been used, and what we are planning to do to insure these types of actions never occur again. As you know, a top priority of Director Koenings is to develop and advance credible scientifically based policies at the WDFW. Although the intent of the biologists involved was to test the abilities of the DNA laboratory used in the interagency lynx study, their approach was inappropriate and has significantly tarnished the scientific reputation of this agency.
Recently, the United States Forest Service (USFS) released information regarding the unauthorized and improper submittal of three lynx hair samples from Washington. The samples, which were submitted as part of a USFS national interagency lynx survey effort, to determine current lynx range, came from biologists from the USFS, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the WDFW.
We cannot provide any details regarding the specific activity of biologists with the USFS or the USFWS. However, we feel it is important to provide the details surrounding the improper behavior of the WDFW staff. The facts we are reporting here were determined as a result of an independent USFS investigation of this issue.
WDFW biologists have been cooperating with the USFS on a national survey effort designed to identify presence and absence of lynx throughout their historic range. Each biologist involved was responsible for establishing lynx scent/rubbing stations along designated transects. Survey protocols required biologists to check these stations at a set interval to retrieve any hair that was left behind by a lynx (i.e., the target species), or any other animal that had been lured by a scent attractant and then rubbed against a rough surfaced scent pad. Information from any hair collected at a station was recorded on a data sheet; hair samples were labeled according to a specific numbering system and placed into a data collection envelope. All hair samples were then packaged and submitted to the laboratory contracted by USFS for DNA analysis for the national effort.
Concerns stemming from results of a 1998 lynx survey that had identified lynx in portions of western Washington and the southern cascades of Washington and Oregon using DNA technology, led two participating WDFW biologists (and 5 other biologists from USFWS and USFS) to question the ability of the DNA lab to accurately identify lynx hair. In 1999, one of the WDFW biologists submitted hair samples from a tanned bobcat pelt located at a Department office. During the 2000 field season, a second WDFW biologist submitted a sample from a captive lynx. In order to ensure the bobcat samples submitted were not mistakenly included in the real survey data, the site identification number the biologist assigned to the samples was made up and not a recognized national survey location. The lynx sample was submitted as part of the national survey, but the biologist kept personal records in his file that identified the sample as having been collected from a captive lynx.
None of these false samples were included in the results from the 1999 or 2000 interagency lynx survey effort. It was the conclusion of the independent investigators hired by USFS that the activities by all of the agencies biologists, while completely inappropriate, were not done in an attempt to falsely characterize or expand lynx range in the state of Washington. Rather, the biologists, while aware of the activities of one another, acted independently based on a common concern for the ability of the laboratory to correctly identify and distinguish lynx from other hair, particularly cougar and bobcat.
Early in his tenure at the Department, the Director established three Chief Scientist positions for Fish, Wildlife and Habitat management programs. We were appointed to these positions because of our shared values and commitment to work with the biologists to guide the collection and analysis of biological data to elevate the scientific credibility of the agency. In the arena of natural resource management, it is important that data used in providing the framework for policy must be an unbiased representative description of what occurs in nature. We have all worked extremely hard over the years to ensure that WDFW data is scientifically sound and defensible. It is unfortunate that poor decisions by two agency biologists have called into question the credibility and scientific objectivity of the entire agency.
The fundamental principles of the scientific method require detailed attention to data collection standards and protocols. We are writing this letter to remind us all that our Agency´s commitment to the highest possible level of scientific data collection and analysis is very serious business. Our mission depends on it. We are responsible for ensuring that WDFW uses only the best science in our policy decisions and management actions.
The mistake that these biologists made was not related to questioning the accuracy of the DNA analysis, but rather the way they went about testing the methodology. They chose to act unilaterally, without a specific scientific design, and without proper coordination with the science team in charge of the nationwide survey. They gave too little thought to how their submitted data might possibly be integrated into the real data of the survey, and how their actions might jeopardize the validity of the entire survey project, let alone all other data collection activities of the agency.
The proper action by the biologists should have been to bring their concerns to their supervisors and to the science team in their program. The USFS Lynx Survey coordinator would then have been brought into the discussion. If their concerns were still warranted, a proper blind effects experimental design could have been put in place.
Now the damage is done and it is up to us all to make absolutely sure that something like this never happens again. As chief scientists for the WDFW, it is our intention in the near future to bring the biologists together from each of the programs to meet and discuss this issue and to design and implement new procedures within the agency that will ensure WDFW´s scientific credibility is once again restored. Early next month we will be sending out information to the agency biologists with the details of this process including workshop/meeting logistics. Participation from the biologists will be mandatory. There is a lesson to be learned and we must all work together to restore the confidence of the public and our partners in the scientific data of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
We want you to know that this was truly an isolated incident. The agency has an excellent staff of biologists and research scientists, who continually make significant contributions to quality fish and wildlife science in Washington. There is a lesson to be learned and we must all work together to restore the confidence of the public and our partners in the scientific data of the Agency.