WASHINGTON —(AP)— Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who sent fur samples to a lab claiming they were from a rare lynx showed ``a pattern of bad judgment'' but didn't break the law, an Interior Department investigator says.
He finds equally poor judgement elsewhere in the agency that rewarded them for falsifying the study.
The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking the rare Canada lynx to determine how many there are and where they live. Data from the four-year survey will be used to determine how best to protect the lynx, which is classified as ``threatened.''
During the 1999 and 2000 sampling seasons, seven federal and Washington state biologists sent fur samples from a captive lynx and from a bobcat pelt to the lab doing DNA testing. The biologists claimed the samples came from the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington state, where lynx do not normally live.
The biologists, who were not identified by the department, claimed they were testing the lab's ability to identify lynx hair.
But key members of Congress demanded an investigation, arguing that the biologists' action could have tainted the study. It also could have led to closure of parts of the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot national forests to protect the wildcat's habitat.
Last week's report by Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney found no criminal intent on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists involved and said the Justice Department declined to prosecute them.
But in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton summarizing the report, Devaney said the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to administer ``meaningful punishment,'' which he said showed the service's ``bias against holding employees accountable for their behavior.''
And he called the decision to give the employees involved a cash award, praising their work soon after the incident, ``an incredible display of bad judgment.''
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., whose House Resources forest subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the lynx study, called some of the findings alarming.
``The idea that these people got a merit pay raise, in conjunction with the same lynx study they undermined, no less, quite literally boggles the mind,'' he said.
An earlier Forest Service report said the bogus samples were caught and did not taint the lynx study. Six of the seven biologists have been removed from the lynx survey and one has retired.
The report only deals with the employees involved in the incident who work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Interior Department. A report addressing the conduct of three Forest Service employees is pending, as is an investigation by the General Accounting Office, Congress' auditing and investigative agency.
Norton has asked two top Fish and Wildlife Service officials to review the three-inch thick report and recommend necessary remedies, said department spokesman Mark Pfeifle.
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