Fish and Wildlife to Review Eight Rulings on Endangered Species

By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday that it will review eight endangered species decisions that were "inappropriately influenced" by a political appointee of the Interior Department, throwing a lifeline to 18 species that scientists had deemed to be in need of protection.

Scientists, conservationists and some lawmakers welcomed the news that the agency will reconsider the actions of former deputy assistant secretary Julie A. MacDonald to limit federal protections in those eight cases, but they expressed dismay that the agency chose not to reexamine other decisions she influenced.

Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall told reporters in a conference call that decisions affecting the fate of the white-tailed prairie dog, Preble's meadow jumping mouse, arroyo toad, southwestern willow flycatcher, California red-legged frog, Canada lynx and 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies will be reexamined.

He said he hopes the reviews will help address the "blemish on the scientific integrity" of the agency. "Should our reviews indicate that additional corrective actions are necessary, we will take appropriate corrective action as quickly as we can," Hall said.

First as a special assistant and later as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, MacDonald was involved in more than 200 rulings on endangered species between 2002 and May 2007, when she resigned following an inspector general's report that found she had improperly leaked information to private organizations, bullied staff scientists and broken federal rules.

Interior's regional directors submitted a list of 11 decisions they believed were influenced by MacDonald, but three were struck off the list following further discussions with Hall.

Two of the decisions -- a ruling on a regional listing of the marbled murrelet seabird and the habitat of the bull trout -- were pulled from the list Thursday.

Hall said the last-minute deletions were made because MacDonald's impact on those decisions had been minimal or related to law or policy within her "legitimate purview" rather than scientific alterations, a distinction dismissed by critics as "arbitrary."

"Illegal policy decisions are just as bad as illegal science decisions," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, who had wanted the agency also to reconsider decisions involving the northern spotted owl and the delta smelt.

"When decisions by field officers are reversed by a political appointee, the label you put on that should not determine whether it is reevaluated," Boyles said.

Boyles also noted that the agency chose not to review MacDonald's involvement in a decision to delist the Sacramento splittail, a species of fish that lives in waters on an 80-acre farm MacDonald owns within the species' limited habitat in California's Central Valley.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, welcomed the reviews but added: "While this is positive movement, it is just a start. What we have learned to date raises concerns about political tinkering with science that has affected many endangered species-related decisions -- and goodness knows what else -- that deserve further scrutiny."

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