Thursday, November 02, 2006

A clash in the Interior over endangered listings

By Juliet Eilperin

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least half a dozen times in the past three years, documents show.

In addition, staff complaints that their scientific findings were frequently overruled or disparaged at the behest of landowners or industry have led the agency's inspector general to look into the role of Julie MacDonald — who has been deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks since 2004 — in decisions on protecting endangered species.

The documents show MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison's sage grouse are at risk of extinction. Career officials and scientists urged the department to identify the species as either threatened or endangered.

Overall, President Bush's appointees have added far fewer species to the protected list than did the administrations of either Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush, according to the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. As of now, the administration has listed 56 species under the Endangered Species Act, for a rate of about 10 a year. Under Clinton, officials listed 512 species, or 64 a year, and under President George H.W. Bush the department listed 234, or 59 a year.

The dispute is the latest in a series of controversies in which government officials and outside scientists have accused the Bush administration of overriding or setting aside scientific findings that clashed with its political agenda on such issues as climate change, the Plan B emergency contraceptive or stem-cell research.

Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said the agency has added fewer plants and animals to the list because it has been mired in lawsuits over existing listings and was more focused on ensuring their recovery than in identifying new ones.

MacDonald said that she does not make the decision on whether to protect a species, because the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service has that responsibility. But MacDonald said she had made her feelings clear in documents; overruled scientists' conclusions in areas where she has authority, such as designating critical habitat; and mocked rank-and-file employees' recommendations.

MacDonald said she sees her job as protecting "the public face of the Fish and Wildlife Service" by carefully scrutinizing listing documents that often seemed vague or unsupported by evidence.

"A lot of times when I first read a document I think, 'This is a joke, this is just not right.' So I'll ask questions," said MacDonald, a civil engineer by training.

Since the act's inception in 1973, the government has identified 1,337 domestic species as threatened or endangered, of which 1,311 remain on the list. At any given time the government is evaluating hundreds of candidate species; officials and scientists review all the available scientific literature on a plant or animal before awarding it protection.

Hundreds of pages of records, obtained by environmental groups through the Freedom of Information Act, chronicle the long-running battle between MacDonald and Fish and Wildlife Service employees over decisions on whether to safeguard plants and animals from oil and gas drilling, power lines and real-estate development — spiced by her mocking comments on their work and their frequently expressed resentment.

Two advocacy groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Biological Diversity, provided the documents to The Washington Post. Francesca Grifo, who directs the union's scientific integrity program, said MacDonald's actions are "not business as usual, but a systemic problem of tampering with science that is putting our environment at risk."

In a few instances, federal judges have overturned decisions MacDonald had influenced. After she declared that the endangered Santa Barbara and Sonoma salamanders were no longer "distinct populations" entitled to protection, William Alsup, a judge on the U.S. District Court for Northern California, ruled MacDonald had arbitrarily instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to downgrade the two species even though an agency scientist concluded "genetics state otherwise."

MacDonald has repeatedly urged employees to consider the position of industry officials more seriously when weighing whether to declare a species threatened or endangered. During a discussion of greater-sage-grouse populations, she wrote, "This paragraph completely ignores the comments received by the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association and the Idaho Cattle Association." The organization opposed the listing on the grounds that it would limit their use of land.

During a separate rulemaking concerning the threatened bull trout's habitat on the Klamath River, Fish and Wildlife officials debated via e-mail how to respond to MacDonald. Her questions, they believed, reflected the concerns of Ronald Yockim, a lawyer representing three Idaho counties opposing a pending decision to protect nearly 300 miles of the river. After MacDonald's intervention, Fish and Wildlife officials opted to protect just 42 miles.

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