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Investigation: Endangered Species Findings Tainted by Rogue Officials

The inspector general of the Interior Department submitted a report to Congress last Monday that found agency officials doctored scientific work to preclude certain species from receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The report focused on a number of questionable ESA-related decisions made by Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Interior's Fish and Wildlife and Parks. She resigned in May 2007 after an initial investigation confirmed a complaint that she "had bullied, insulted and harassed the professional staff of FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] to change documents and alter biological reporting" with respect to the ESA program.

"Our findings from this [latest] investigation are much the same, although we found that the nature and extent of MacDonald's influence varied dramatically from one decision to another...In one instance we found that MacDonald went to extraordinary efforts to influence a particular decision, but her efforts ultimately had no effect on the outcome. In other instances, her involvement clearly caused a particular result," said Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney in a letter to Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

"The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another's misdeeds," Rahall said. No charges are expected to be brought against MacDonald or other former Interior officials because the department doesn't believe the evidence warrants referral to the Department of Justice, a source said.

"This report makes it crystal clear how one person's contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency. Ms. MacDonald's narrow focus on her own agenda not only endangered the Endangered Species Act, it opened the door for countless land-use decisions and developments that would have never otherwise been considered...Congress needs to take immediate steps to make sure that Julie MacDonald's legacy can never be repeated," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who requested the follow-up investigation.

"Overall...MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the ESA program and to the morale and reputation of the FWS, as well as potential harm to individual species. Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision issued during her tenure; of the 20 decisions we reviewed, her influence potentially jeopardized 13 ESA decisions," Devaney said. The report indicated that some of the decisions may need to be reviewed by the incoming Obama administration.

To name just a few, the report said MacDonald was "heavily involved" with excluding large amounts of areas from the bull trout critical habitat designation (CHD); and was involved in the development of the Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan.

MacDonald's conduct was backed by the "seemingly blind support" of former assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Judge Craig Manson, and she was also "ably abetted in her attempts to interfere with the science" by Randal Bowman, special assistant in Manson's office; as well as Thomas Graf, an attorney in the Office of the Solicitor.

The investigation "showed that MacDonald pursued her agenda by exerting political influence on the FWS Washington office, regional offices and field offices. She frequently contested the scientific findings of FWS biologists and often replaced their scientific conclusions with her own, even though she was not a biologist. MacDonald also acted as an economist -- again without professional training -- in her efforts to restrict critical habitat designations," according to the 141-page report.

"In the end, the cloud of MacDonald's overreaching, and the actions of those who enabled and assisted her, have caused the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars to reissue decisions and litigation costs to defend decisions that, in at least two instances, the court found to be arbitrary and capricious."

In December 2007, an Idaho district judge ruled that the FWS had ignored the best available science in its decision not to list the greater sage grouse under the federal ESA. The agency was ordered to reconsider its decision, which it is in the process of doing (see NGI, Dec. 10, 2007). If ultimately listed under the ESA, the bird's status could slow development, impact grazing rules and curb oil and natural gas drilling in parts of the U.S. West.

The sage grouse population has been on the decline across the West, and the states and other federal agencies have stepped up to search for a way for development, including oil and natural gas drilling, to coexist with the bird (see NGI, Sept. 29; Aug. 18).

In one of a number of interviews conducted during the investigation, MacDonald was described as a proponent of business rather than species protection. "[MacDonald] was an odd choice for that position [deputy assistant secretary] because she had no interest in species conservation. She [said] she didn't like the outdoors; she never went outdoors. She never went to a national park or wildlife refuge and she never intended to...[MacDonald believed] there were other more important goals like making sure people got water and electricity and developers had the opportunity to make profits."

Benjamin Tuggle, region two regional director, said that while he was assigned to the FWS Washington office, most of his conversations with MacDonald concerned federal regulatory issues dealing with relicensing of hydroelectric power projects. "During one discussion with MacDonald, she told Tuggle that her job was to represent industry," he recalled.

In a parting recommendation in the report, Interior's Devaney called on the FWS to "develop policy to lend a sense of consistency, to guide ESA decisions where discretion is allowed, and to provide the public the transparency that is fundamentally lacking in this high-profile program. Whether by regulation or policy, we believe that action is necessary to restore the integrity of the ESA program, and the morale and reputation of the FWS in the eyes of the public and of Congress."

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