Not Out of the Woods

Forestry scientists fudge the facts on lynx population.

The U.S. Forest Service disclosed last month that federal and state biologists submitted false evidence indicating Canada lynx were found in the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot National Forests of Western Washington.

According to U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) spokesman Doug Zimmer, biologists (three from the Forest Service, two from the FWS, and two from the Washington State Department of Wildlife) submitted three hair samples from captive lynx to verify the accuracy of DNA tests done at the Forest Service lab in Missoula. For that unauthorized action, they were admonished and barred from further participation in the nationwide lynx study.

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and ESA opponents in Congress and the Washington State Legislature see the episode as proof of their long-held fears that the real purpose of such studies is to extend restrictions on logging and forest access based on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Zimmer rejects that claim, saying three samples would have only triggered additional surveys. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and members of Congress promise investigations in addition to the one already conducted by the Forest Service.

The quality of science ultimately depends on the scrutiny it gets from interested parties, and everyone in the Inland Northwest has reason to be interested in ESA science. In addition to Canada Lynx, local animal populations protected by the ESA include grizzly bear, bull trout, gray wolf, pygmy rabbits, 12 varieties of salmon, white sturgeon and more. Listing or related actions were taken on more than 20 species during 2001, with five involving the Northwest. Since ESA was enacted in 1973, 1,200 animal and plant populations have been added to the endangered species list.

For those who enjoy learning a new subject, the Canada lynx story serves as a primer on ESA science. The following comments are based on government lynx reports and conversations with Brian Holt, FWS Region I Canada Lynx Coordinator. Holt is also a biologist with the Spokane FWS office.

FWS biologists recommended listing U.S. populations of Canada lynx in 1994. Their superiors in the Clinton Administration declined. Defenders of Wildlife and 12 other national and regional environmental groups then sued to force a listing in 2000.

The Missoula-based U.S. Forest Service Northern Region leads the government's lynx protection program in consultation with FWS. Risks described in the management plan are limitations on habitat of the lynx's primary prey (snowshoe hares) and competition from other predators like coyotes and bobcats. Other risks are loss of den sites due to removal of mature timber and deadfalls, and habitat fragmentation due to road building and land development.

Recommended protective measures include restrictions on pre-commercial timber thinning (to create snowshoe hare habitat) and on removal of mature timber and deadfalls (to provide more den sites). Another recommendation is no net increase in groomed snowmobile or ski trails in lynx habitat.

The reasoning behind the trail restriction is that other predators on snowshoe hares use groomed snow trails to enter lynx habitat. Lynx do not require trails, because their feet are adapted for overland travel in heavy snow.

In Eastern Washington and North Idaho, restrictions will generally apply to forested areas above 4,000 feet in elevation. Also included are lower elevation areas around Priest Lake.

Scientific understanding of the Canada lynx is described in a series of papers accompanying the management plan. The lynx is a creature of northern and high-elevation coniferous forests. A typical adult male is about the size of a Scottish terrier, weighing 20 pounds and measuring three feet, nose to tail. Lynx hunt snowshoe hares and other prey (squirrels, grouse) by stalking or by ambushing them along their trails. Except for breeding, lynx live alone in hunting territories they mark and defend. Female lynx give birth in dens hidden in downed trees and heavy brush and occasionally share hunting territory with their female offspring.

As the name suggests, the Canada lynx sub-species inhabits western Canada and Alaska. Other sub-species of lynx inhabit eastern Canada and the Eastern Hemisphere (primarily Russia). Sub-Arctic lynx populations go through cycles driven by similar cycles in snowshoe hare populations. In good years, sub-Arctic lynx are abundant enough to sustain commercial trapping.

Scattered populations of Canada lynx occur across the northern tier of the U.S, from Maine to Washington state (except for the Plains states) and in the Rocky Mountains as far south as Colorado. Those populations are small and fragmented by human barriers that prevent interbreeding and migration in search of prey. U.S. lynx populations are also considered more stable than those in the sub-Arctic, because they rely on a greater diversity of prey and habitat.

Lynx are intrinsically rare. Each individual requires 25-50 square miles of habitat. Their population is highly variable, and individuals live solitary, secretive lives. These and other factors complicate efforts to quantify population and the effects of protective measures. Managers cope with these knowledge limits by basing regulations on their general knowledge of lynx biology and a conservative (i.e., pro-preservation) approach to uncertainties about specific populations.

ESA does not always require scientific proof of extinction risk to list a species as threatened or endangered. A species may be listed if it lacks other habitat protection and there is only uncertainty about long-term viability. Pursuant to a settlement with Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental organizations, FWS used that rationale to list U.S. lynx populations as threatened.

Lynx eat rabbits. Rabbits eat brush. Pre-commercial thinning of timber removes brush. So pre-commercial thinning was restricted in lynx habitat. Coyotes also eat rabbits. Coyote tracks are often seen in groomed snowmobile trails. To reserve rabbits for lynx, new groomed trails were prohibited in lynx habitat. There is a bit more to it, but that is the essence of the science supporting two major lynx recovery measures. Similar rationales are offered for others.

ESA supporters say regulating with scanty scientific knowledge is necessary to preserve options until better information is obtained. Opponents call the practice "junk science," and say it proves agency scientists have predetermined, and sometimes hidden, environmentalist agendas.

Samuel Clemens once described science as "the art of spinning infinitely many conclusions from infinitely few facts." That ESA science often proves his point is no indictment of wildlife science or of particular scientists. But it is reason for skepticism when claims fly that "science commands this" or "science prohibits that." Such conclusions always (and necessarily) blend scientific information, personal and institutional values, and what can only be called guesswork.

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About The Author

Robert Stokes

Robert Stokes provided commentary for The Inlander from 2001 to 2009. He served in the Army in Germany, taught economics at the University of Washington, loved to fish and had two daughters and four grandkids over in Seattle. But he never quite left Spokane Valley; he returned in the mid-1990s to take care...