U.S. Endangered Species Program Burdened by Political Meddling
By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 29, 2007 (ENS) - A top Bush administration appointee at the U.S. Interior Department could have benefitted financially from a decision she was involved with to remove a California fish from the federal endangered species list, according to a new report by the agency's inspector general.

The report on the actions of Julie MacDonald, former Interior deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, comes on the heels of a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise seven Endangered Species Act rulings she improperly influenced during her tenure at the agency.

The inspector general's report detailed that MacDonald and her husband owned "a revenue-generating farm" located in the same region as the species in question, the Sacramento splittail. The fish was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

Sacramento splittails are about the size of a large minnow. (Photo courtesy UC-Davis)

MacDonald's financial disclosure statement shows that she earns as much as $1 million per year from her ownership of the 80 acre active farm in Dixon, California. Federal law bars federal employees from participating in decisions on matters in which they have a personal financial interest.

Although MacDonald was not involved in the initial decision by Fish and Wildlife Service officials to delist the species, she was "involved extensively and intimately" in the editing of the final decision. Her edits were "voluminous," including changes to the statistical analysis of Splittail population data, the inspector general wrote in a report released November 27.

The report notes that several Fish and Wildlife Service officials indicated the "changes instituted by MacDonald could potentially have a significant impact on the Splittail" because her edits could be used as a precedent for future decisions.

Officials raised concerns that MacDonald's changes could make it harder for the agency, when reviewing the status of the species, to use scientific analysis outlining concerns that the fish may be experiencing a population decline and that it continues to face threats from habitat loss.

Earl Devaney, Inspector General, Department of the Interior, is a former director of criminal enforcement for the U.S. EPA. (Photo courtesy DOI)

Given that her farm could be subject to restrictions needed to protect the species if it remained on the endangered species list, MacDonald "should have recused herself" from the decision, according to Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney.

Although MacDonald's participation in the process was "potentially a criminal violation of federal conflict of interest laws," the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia declined to pursue the case.

Miller said the new inspector general report shows that MacDonald "came to her job with an axe to grind" and that she "escaped punishment for those hidden conflicts by sneaking out the back door."

After three years as deputy assistant secretary, MacDonald resigned her post on May 1, 2007 following an earlier report by Devaney that found she had improperly pressured federal wildlife scientists to weaken protections for endangered species and leaked confidential information on species decisions to industry and private property groups.

That report detailed interference by MacDonald, a civil engineer by training, with scientific reports on a slew of endangered and threatened species. It detailed how she repeatedly pressed scientists to downplay risks to species and in several instances simply ignored their findings.

Last week Kenneth Stansell, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed the agency would revise seven rulings MacDonald influenced, noting that it reviewed the decisions "after questions were raised about the integrity of scientific information used and whether the decisions made were consistent with the appropriate legal standards."

The Fish and Wildlife Service will withdraw its proposal to delist the Preble's meadow jumping mouse and will reconsider whether the white-tailed prairie dog should be afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A Preble's meadow jumping mouse (Photo courtesy USFWS)

The agency will also revise critical habitat designations for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, the Canada lynx, arroyo toad, California red-legged frog as well as for a dozen species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies.

House Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall welcomed the decision, but called it "the latest illustration of the depth of incompetence at the highest levels of management within the Interior Department and breadth of this administration's penchant for torpedoing science."

Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, criticized the agency for failing to reprimand MacDonald, adding that her "dubious leadership and waste of taxpayer dollars will now force the agency to divert precious time, attention, and resources to go back and see that the work is done in a reliable and untainted manner."

Environmentalists welcomed the news that the seven decisions will be revisited, but remain suspicious of an administration they contend has little interest in protecting imperiled species.

"I'm glad to see they've concluded there was some improper meddling but it is unclear when some of these decisions will be revisited," said Michael Senatore, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. "For some of them it is not even clear when they are going to start the process."

Senatore's organization has filed lawsuits challenging six decisions influenced by MacDonald and other Bush administration political appointees. The environmental group has also filed notice of intent to file additional suits targeting decisions made about 49 other federally protected species, including the delisting of the Sacramento splittail.

Litigation is "the only way we get species listed," Senatore told ENS, adding that it has been nearly 18 month since a new species was afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"The agency is underfunded but they do have money and I've been at a loss to determine what they have been doing with that money," he said. "They are certainly able to get negative decisions out."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.