Contamination of scientific samples during surveys of Canada lynx populations

Steven A. Williams


March 6, 2002

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate this opportunity to appear before the Committee to discuss the role of Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologists in the incident involving the submission of unauthorized samples for genetic testing during population surveys for the Canada lynx in National Forests in Washington State.

As you know, this matter involves action by two Service biologists, three Forest Service personnel, and two State employees who submitted unauthorized lynx hair samples to the lab charged with analyzing those samples. This incident came to the attention of the Secretary of the Interior in December 2001, and she asked the Department’s Inspector General to investigate the matter. The General Accounting Office and Inspector General of the Department of the Interior have provided the details to you.

Last Friday I received a briefing by the Inspector General’s office and a copy of their report. I am relying on that briefing and report for information as to exactly what occurred. Having taken office February 6, 2002, I have no personal knowledge of this matter.

I am acutely aware of the critical importance of quality science as a foundation for the Service’s activities and decisions. As a Ph.D. biologist, I am familiar with what constitutes quality science and proper research procedures. I am also deeply aware of the obligation of a public agency to be trustworthy in carrying out its responsibilities. The submission of an unauthorized “test” sample was not provided for in the survey protocol and, therefore, was inappropriate and unacceptable.

While the actions of these individuals have caused the public to doubt the overall credibility of the agencies’ science, I want to point out that this is not an example of bad science by the agencies involved; instead it is bad judgment by the individuals involved. This is a crucial distinction which must be kept in mind in evaluating this situation. Therefore, I am reviewing the disciplinary actions that were taken against the employees and I am analyzing the Inspector General’s recommendations for further disciplinary action.

Based on the information received from the Department of Interior’s Inspector General and from a discussion with the General Accounting Office, here is my understanding of the events surrounding this situation. Certain biologists from the three agencies questioned the lab’s ability to accurately identify species using DNA testing of hair found in the wild.

In 2000, these doubts led the two Service biologists to “test” the system by submitting unauthorized samples for DNA analysis. The survey protocol did not include provisions for the submission of “test” or “blind samples.” Therefore, this decision was outside of the survey protocol, was not reviewed by supervisors of the survey, and was not approved by the survey field coordinator, and the lab conducting the DNA analysis. As I noted above, this is not bad science by the agencies. Instead, these were misguided actions taken by two Service biologists; a breach of survey protocol and a demonstration of a lack of scientific rigor and professionalism by these two individuals. In essence, there was a disconnect between the involved biologists in the field and the lab conducting the analysis.

The distrust or concern should never have occurred because the lab had verified its analysis at an independent lab prior to conducting its work. This information should have provided field biologists with confidence in the lab’s ability to successfully identify species, obviating a need to secretly test the lab.

Irrespective of the poor judgement demonstrated by these biologists, the sample submission would not have altered land management decisions on the National Forest. The reason is that the “test” sample, which was secured from a captive lynx, was identified as having originated from an area within the Wenatchee National Forest previously identified as occupied by lynx. However, even if the “test” sample were to have been identified as originating from an area not known to be occupied by lynx, further surveys and analyses conducted by interagency employees and input from the general public would have been conducted prior to delineating the area as “occupied.”

Because of the importance of science to both the perception and the reality of our activities, particularly with regard to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the following principles must guide the Fish and Wildlife Service’s administration of ESA activities: ensure that our decisions are based on the best available science; seek independent peer review of our decisions where possible; provide for public participation throughout our decision process; and ensure that our decision process is understandable and transparent. These principles were published at various times in the federal register. I will provide you with copies of these notices at your request.

I can assure you that now that I have been confirmed, these principles and policies will be fully put into practice. Having spent 16 years working in state fish and wildlife agencies, I have a deep appreciation and respect for state employees who possess the scientific expertise and understanding of local issues.

These policies have established a solid framework within which scientifically based decisions can be made under the ESA. Recently, the National Academy of Science (NAS) was asked to examine three of our scientific decisions made as part of biological opinions under the ESA. The NAS validated the biological opinion on two of those decisions, but found a lack of scientific justification for a major component of the biological opinion on the operation of the Klamath Project. While these examples are too few to make generalizations about our accuracy rate, we believe that the Service generally uses sound science in its work and uses the products of that science to make scientifically valid decisions. However, in this context “generally” is not good enough; our goal must be “always.” Where that soundness and excellence has been compromised, we will address it.

As stated earlier, due to the serious nature of the incident, the Secretary requested that the Inspector General conduct an investigation. The Inspector General completed his investigation and issued a report that recommends four actions:

(1) That the Secretary ask the Department’s Chief scientist to convene a workgroup consisting of internal and external scientists to (a) review and make recommendations on how to restore rigorous science to the Endangered Species Program and (b) to design and implement a DOI Scientific Code of Ethics;

(2) That the Office of the Inspector General accelerate its scheduled review of DOI’s conduct and discipline process;

(3) That the Office of the Inspector General conduct a follow-up audit of FWS’s monetary incentive awards program to determine if previous OIG recommendations have been implemented; and

(4) That the Director of FWS revisit the issue of administrative action in this matter with a view towards considering (a) more meaningful punishment for those previously counseled, and (b) administrative action against additional FWS employees at the Region and Headquarters.

The Secretary and I will fully analyze the Inspector General’s report, which was transmitted to us last Friday, and the report of the General Accounting Office, before making any determinations on how to best implement the Inspector General’s recommendations.

Today, I want to share with you Secretary Norton’s and my commitment to provide the leadership, guidance, training, resources, and discipline to ensure and enforce high standards of scientific integrity and ethics in addressing the Service’s responsibilities.

While the restoration of scientific credibility was not a challenge I anticipated when I accepted the President’s offer to head this agency, it is the challenge now before me, and it is my paramount priority.

In my first message to all Fish and Wildlife Service employees upon taking office, I shared my focus and commitment to science, stating in part:

I am . . . confident that the Service will be able to rise to the challenge of restoring its scientific credibility, which has been called into question by recent events. As a biologist, I know that sound natural resource management decisions must be based on sound science. At the Service, managers are required to rely on the best available science to administer the laws we are charged with upholding.

I am in the first stage of this initiative, but it is one that will dominate my agenda as Director and my leadership of the bureau. I have developed a multi-faceted approach to address this issue. Key elements include:

Performance and Conduct Standards

We have developed personnel standards which specify disciplinary consequences for inappropriate or unacceptable behavior related to science. On February 12, a Director’s Order was issued concerning “Disciplinary Action for Unauthorized Activities in the Course of Scientific Studies or Investigations.” Key components of this Order include:

•Requiring all employees who are involved in scientific studies or investigations to adhere strictly to established scientific protocols;

•Requiring that any employee who questions the scientific methods being used in a study, including the quality assurance and quality control procedures for analysis, use appropriate channels to address their concerns with the Director of the research;

•Stating that any measures taken outside of established study protocols to “test” any aspect of a study without the knowledge and consent of the principal investigator are always unacceptable; and

•Informing employees that acting outside of established scientific protocols would be grounds for disciplinary action up to and including removal from the Service.

As subsequently recommended by the Inspector General, we are also working with the Department’s Science Advisor on a Code of Ethics to more broadly address the issues that have arisen here.


Personal commitment — I have met personally with Regional and field managers in 3 of our 7 Regions, and focused on the science issue in my public and private remarks. I will soon do the same with the remaining Regions in the near future.

I will ensure that all our Regional Directors and Assistant Directors, both in our collective meetings and in their individual actions, focus on sound science as the foundation for decisions.

Optimize External Resources

We will fully utilize good science support, including bringing external science expertise to bear on the design and conduct of our scientific studies and evaluations, as well as review of the final product. I will seek advice from respected wildlife management professionals, academia, States, and the private sector.

In cooperation with the Department, we are examining which Service products and processes would benefit by additional peer review. The findings of this review will be rapidly implemented.

Whenever possible, I would like to utilize independent scientific expertise in our activities at the planning level.


I have directed the Service’s National Conservation Training Center to review the full range of its instructional programs to ensure that the importance of scientific rigor, scientific integrity and ethics in science is integrated into all of our technical curriculum, supervisory training, leadership development programs, and our current new employee orientation. It is a well-established axiom that an organization will apply the skills that it focuses on in its learning phase.

All agency managers, supervisors, and leadership will be required to satisfactorily complete this training. It will be provided to all new employees as an additional part of standard existing new-employee training.

I have further directed the National Conservation Training Center to make preparations for me to discuss this issue with the entire organization through the use of our interactive broadcast network. Additionally, I have directed that during this broadcast each employee personally receive a copy of my policy regarding scientific integrity and professional ethics to raise Service-wide awareness about this issue and to leave no doubt where I stand on this subject and the consequences awaiting any employee who violates this policy.

Lastly, I have directed that instructional materials be prepared and made available to each Regional Director to enable them to conduct special local sessions with their employees about the topics of scientific rigor, validity, and integrity.

It is my commitment and priority to address the problem evidenced by the unauthorized activity in the lynx survey. I believe the steps I outline here provide long-term emphasis on professionalism and ethics. Most importantly, the emphasis on standards, training, leadership, and enforcement will support continued good work by the Service, and will avoid actions that would undermine those standards.

When it is appropriate under the law to exercise our discretion to account for economic and human impacts, we will do so. I am confident that the course of action outlined above will improve the public’s trust in the Service as an objective and scientifically-based steward of natural resources.

This concludes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to respond to any questions.