So where do people get their weird ideas? The notion that some secret cabal of environmentalists might be turning Owls loose in Long Island to stymie an indoor ski mountain, or punting Murrelets over the mountains in the Pacific Northwest to cause woe to foresters, or even airdropping pumas into Michigan to frustrate deer hunters… how do you walk around thinking this? Are our hinterlands populated by papier-mache people built from pages of The Paranoid Style in American Politics? Is it mass hypnosis?

Nah. Just tinfoil hattery, fear-mongering, and a little good old fashioned lying. As usual.

Travel with me to the hazy days of the early aughts. In December 2001, the Washington Times breaks a wild story – biologists, they claim, have planted fur from captive lynx in the forests of Washington State in a bid to get those forests closed to human use. It was scientific fraud of the worst order; deplorable, dispiriting, and damning….

Or it would have been, if it had actually, you know, happened. In fact, while the captive lynx samples were a violation of study protocol, they were never part of any claim about lynx habitat or land use; they were introduced (in a thoroughly documented manner) into the testing procedure as a gotcha trap for a DNA lab that was returning results that the biologists found shady. Undesirably ad hoc methodology, to be sure, but nothing like an attempt to defraud the American public. And in fact, even had the biologists in question produced a whole hairball of fake lynx in the disputed areas, it still wouldn’t have meant closing the area to humans without a whole lot more study, if at all.

Still, this story of hippy tree-huggers crossbred with jack-booted government thugs was so entrancing to the Times that they ultimately ran ten articles on the subject. Their coverage sparked interest at the Associated Press, and while the truth was still getting its boots on indignant editorials appeared from coast to coast condemning the biofrauds who were unfairly putting a finger on the scales to the benefit of those already oh-so-privileged endangered species. A good account of the whole fiasco can be found here.

Eventually, refutations began to circulate and the matter faded from view. I myself had never heard of it until I spotted an uncritical mention in the otherwise interesting Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma – a book that puts the hunt for the extinct/”extinct” Eastern mountain lion in Michigan into a rich context of personality clashes, political maneuvering, and wildlife management decision-making that is beholden to the interests of “sportsmen” to the exclusion of other aims.

But even if the specifics are gone, it’s easy to see why the urban (rural?) legend lives on. It aligns the triggers of the timber industry, kneejerk Libertarians, and the religious-right fringe that believes their enemies to be literal Gaia-worshipers. It also has that heady “can’t trust the scientists” smell that the Republicans are breathing out yet again this election cycle.

The species will change. The rumors will evolve. But I don’t think that we should expect the meme of the Audubon Mafia to go away any time soon.

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