Reign of Bush Fish and Wildlife Official Ends in Disgrace
WASHINGTON, DC, May 1, 2007 (ENS) - Monday's resignation of a high-ranking Interior Department official who manipulated the work of government scientists was applauded today by environmentalists and scientists, but they cautioned that this single resignation does not solve the problem of political interference with the work of scientists at federal agencies.
Julie MacDonald left her position as the Department of Interior’s deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks, from which she controlled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species program.
Her resignation follows a finding March 29 by the agency's Inspector General Earl Devaney that she violated federal ethics rules by sending "nonpublic information" to industry lobbyists.
MacDonald repeatedly leaked internal Fish and Wildlife Service documents to business groups who opposed the Service and its environmental decision making in court. Some of these internal documents later surfaced as evidence in lawsuits filed against the Service.
She sent draft studies and preliminary discussions about application of the Endangered Species Act to the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Pacific Legal Foundation; to two people with e-mail addresses at Chevron; and to the father of an online role-playing game partner, who had no legitimate reason for access to internal Interior Department records.
In addition, the Inspector General's report criticized Macdonald, a civil engineer with no formal education in the natural sciences, for overriding recommendations of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists about how to protect endangered species.
The Inspector General found that MacDonald interfered with field reports such as the sage grouse risk analysis, a critical habitat decision for endangered bull trout, a designation of California's northern and southern tiger salamanders as distinct populations, a decision about California's delta smelt, and an analysis of California's vernal pools as critical habitat.
MacDonald stepped down days before a May 9 congressional oversight hearing by the House Resources Committee into the Bush administration's violations of the Endangered Species Act and censorship of endangered species science.
Citing serious ethics transgressions committed by MacDonald, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said Monday that he will place a hold on Senate confirmation of Lyle Laverty, the president’s nominee as assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, until he is satisfied that such transgressions will not happen again.
"Ms. MacDonald has betrayed the mission she swore to uphold," said Wyden, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"Her actions have undermined both the work and the integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and its many dedicated employees. By placing a hold on Mr. Laverty’s nomination, I want the administration to get the message that this behavior must come to a stop for the duration of the Bush administration.”
In a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne sent Monday, Wyden says Macdonald forced Fish and Wildlife Service scientists and staff to alter their findings, often with no scientific basis.
"In one case, she demanded that the determined nesting range of the Southwest Willow Flycatcher be shrunk from a 2.1 mile radius to 1.8 miles, so that it would not cross into the state of California, where her husband’s family owned a ranch," said Wyden.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS, a nonprofit group based in Washington, said Macdonald's departure does not solve the "pervasive problem" of political interference with scientists employed by federal agencies.
"We welcome Julie MacDonald's resignation," said UCS Scientific Integrity Program Director Francesca Grifo, "but she represents a much larger problem of widespread political interference at federal agencies."
UCS is calling for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to take action to ensure the work of federal scientists will not be subject to political manipulation.
"Secretary Kempthorne should guarantee Interior Department scientists final review of their work before it is released," said Dr. Grifo, who will testify May 9 about political interference in the work of federal scientists before the House Natural Resources Committee.
"Julie MacDonald's reign of terror over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finally over," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group based in Tucson, Arizona. "Endangered species and scientists everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief."
"But MacDonald was the administration's attack dog, not its general," Suckling said. "The contempt for science and law that she came to symbolize goes much deeper than a single Department of Interior employee."
"When I woke up this morning and I thought I heard the birds and wildlife cheering," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who faced MacDonald in her official capacity on many occasions. "Now I know why."
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