Western legislators are infuriated at news that wildlife biologists planted false evidence of an endangered wildcat in two U.S. national forests. If the fraud had gone unchecked, vehicles, recreation and livestock grazing could have been outlawed in those forests.

Congressmen Jim Hansen (R-UT) and Scott McInnis (R-CO) are calling for a government investigation and are asking U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to fire the employees responsible.

The Washington Times reports that testing shows government officials planted three separate false hair samples of Canadian lynx on rubbing posts being used to identify lynx habitats in Washington state. The Canadian lynx is protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The false evidence could have forced the closure of roads to vehicle traffic in those forests, as well as banned the use of off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes, livestock grazing and tree thinning.

Two of the unnamed officials are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, three worked for the U.S. Forest Service and two are with a Washington state agency. A colleague exposed the falsified samples submitted in an ongoing lynx survey involving 16 states and affecting 57 national forests.

Ted Turner has South Dakota ranchers concerned. The media mogul/buffalo baron has asked state permission to release rare swift foxes on his 138,000-acre South Dakota ranch.

Turner wants to transplant 180 of the threatened, house cat-sized animals to his central South Dakota ranch over the next several years after trapping them in Wyoming. Area ranchers are worried the release will eventually bring land-use restrictions from the government.

Meanwhile, Turner purchased the 12,318-acre Coble Newton Ranch in Cherry County, NE. That brings his total acreage in Nebraska's Sandhills to 234,000 acres. The Omaha World Herald reports that the family was forced to sell the ranch because of inheritance tax obligations following the death of matriarch Doris Coble. Turner plans to fence and stock the holdings with bison.

The largest U.S. private landowner, Turner owns 14 ranches and 1.75 million total acres in New Mexico, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. He also owns 30,000 bison — 10% of the U.S. population.

Turner is hoping to move some of those bison through a chain of new restaurants that will offer 25 versions of the bison burger. The first of the Ted's Montana Grill restaurants was to open in Columbus, OH, in mid-January. Raw product will come from a cooperative that includes Turner and 300 other bison producers.

The feds are after Tyson Foods again. A federal grand jury in Tennessee indicted Tyson Foods and six current and former executives on immigration charges. They are accused of conspiring to smuggle 2,000 illegal immigrants into the U.S. through agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who offered to provide them with false documents, including fake Social Security cards, to work in 15 Tyson poultry plants across the U.S.

The largest case of its kind, the Washington Post reports charges were filed after a 2½-year government investigation.

National Farms Inc. wants out of cattle feeding. The nation's sixth-largest cattle feedlot operator announced it is seeking buyers for its seven feedlots — six in Kansas and one in Colorado, which together feature a one-time capacity of 270,000 head. CEO Bill Haw says the firm wants to concentrate on its ranching enterprises.

Cattle feeders can expect the equity drain to continue into the first quarter of 2002 and maybe even the second. That's the prognosis from Texas Cattle Feeders Association market director Jim Gill. A combination of low fed cattle prices and high feeder cattle prices is the main cause, Gill says. He expects feeder cattle supplies to continue to tighten over the next couple of years, reflecting the liquidation that's been in effect since 1996.

Prices for a 750-lb. feeder steer, which averaged near $88 in 2001, will average in the low to mid $80s during 2002. He estimates that fed cattle will sell on the cash market for $62 to $76 in the first quarter, $74 to $78 in the second quarter, $70 to $76 in the third and $76 to $80 in the fourth.

He expects beef production to total around 25.3 billion lbs., 3% below 2001. This level would reduce per capita annual consumption near 66.5 lbs., down 2.1 lbs. from 2001.

Gill expects more pressure from competing meats in 2002, with increases in pork and poultry production offsetting the decrease in beef production. Total meat and poultry production in 2002, he says, should end close to 83 million lbs., a 0.5% increase over 2001.

Smithfield is still number five. The sale of American Foods Group Inc. to Smithfield Foods has fallen through due to an inability to agree on a price. That means the nation's largest pork processor will remain in fifth place in the beef-packing industry.

The top four include IBP, Excel, ConAgra and Farmland National. Smithfield vaulted into the number-five position with its purchases in the past six months of Packerland Holdings Inc. and Moyer Packing Co. A successful purchase of American Foods, which is the ninth largest beef processor in the U.S., would have given the firm control of 9% of the U.S. beef market.

By Joe Roybal, 952/851-4669, jroybal@primediabusiness.com.