A few strands of hair - lynx hair, to be precise - have touched off a political catfight that is being heard from the vast evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest to the halls of Congress.
The spitting and hissing began last month, with the revelation that five federal wildlife biologists planted fur from a Canadian lynx - an officially "threatened" species - in the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchott national forests in Washington. On the issue of placing lynx hair on rubbing posts, the researchers plead mea culpa.
What has everyone in an uproar is speculation about why they did it - and what their actions may imply about the reliability of scientific data used both to manage federal lands and to protect certain animals named under the Endangered Species Act.
"The discovery of this problem underscores a long-standing concern I've had over these Endangered Species Act studies," says James V. Hansen, chairman of the House Resources Committee and a vocal critic of the Endangered Species Act. "To me, this revelation calls into question all studies that have been done over the past eight years."
The US Inspector General's Office is now investigating whether the federal scientists should face criminal charges. The five, who so far have been subject to minor disciplinary action, are reported to have told investigators that they submitted fur samples to a laboratory not to deceive, but to test whether the DNA lab could identify real lynx fur if it weren't told beforehand what the sample was.
Others, though, see something more nefarious in the scientists' actions. Some claim that the scientists were trying to falsely establish the presence of lynx in the two national forests so as to restrict logging, mining, and recreation in them. Mr. Hansen, along with several Republican colleagues from the West, wants harsh punishment to be meted out because the suspect data, if used to impose restrictions on certain land uses, had the potential, he says, "to devastate the economies of entire towns and counties."
Defenders of the researchers say biologists simply made the mistake of not informing superiors of their covert actions.
"At no time was there any attempt made by the scientists to fabricate a lynx presence," says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "This has turned into a witch hunt in search of a false conspiracy," Mr. Stahl contends. "It's really about well-intentioned scientists trying to make sure a process works properly but who got caught crosswise by political actors who took what happened and twisted it."
To some environmentalists, Hansen's verbal indictments are viewed as attempts to discredit legitimate wildlife research whose conclusions sometimes clash with the interests of mining and logging industries.
Much research remains to be done about the lynx. Cousins of the common bobcat, the tuft-eared felines are nocturnal, extremely difficult to track and, although the Fish and Wildlife Service two years ago classified lynx as a "threatened" species, the agency is still in the middle of conducting a four-year survey to find out how many of the cats still inhabit the lower 48 states.
Scientists do know that the combination of fur trapping and habitat fragmentation has caused lynx numbers to plummet. Among the options being considered are habitat improvement projects which include thinning of forest cover, possibly even light logging, to improve conditions for snowshoe hare that are the lynx's primary prey. Some restrictions on snowmobiling might be necessary.
"We're not looking, as some of our critics contend, to shut down activities in national forests," says Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. says. "We have consistently tried to work with other agencies and the public to find solutions that preserve species and allow acceptable activities to continue."