Bush Appointee Said to Reject Advice on Endangered Species
Monday, October 30, 2006
A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six 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 of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks since 2004, in decisions on protecting endangered species.
The documents show that MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison 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 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 global warming, the Plan B emergency contraceptive and 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 she does not make the decision on whether to federally protect a species, because the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service has that responsibility. But she said she had made her feelings clear in an array of 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 seem 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 who worked at the California Resources Agency before joining the Interior Department in 2002. "These documents have tremendous economic and social implications for people."
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.
The process can take several years, even though under law it should take no more than two years and three months.
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 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.