By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
After concluding that a Bush administration appointee "may have improperly influenced" several rulings on whether to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised seven decisions on protecting species across the country.
The policy reversal, sparked by inquiries by the Interior Department's inspector general and by the House Natural Resources Committee, underscores the extent to which the administration is still dealing with the fallout from the tenure of Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks who repeatedly overruled agency scientists' recommendations on endangered-species decisions. MacDonald resigned from the department in May after she was criticized in a report by the inspector general and as she was facing congressional scrutiny.
In a letter dated Nov. 23 to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), acting Director Kenneth Stansell of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the agency spent four months reviewing eight Endangered Species Act decisions made under MacDonald and is revising seven of them. Those rulings affected 17 species, including 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies.
In the course of those reviews, for example, Mitch King, then the agency's Region 6 director, said in a June memo to headquarters that while the field and regional office's scientific review concluded there is "substantial" evidence that the white-tailed prairie dog faces a risk of extinction, "the change to 'not substantial' only occurred at Ms. MacDonald's suggestion."
Stansell wrote to Rahall that Fish and Wildlife will launch a one-year investigation into whether to protect the white-tailed prairie dog. Agency officials have also decided not to de-list the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a threatened mammal that lives in Wyoming and Colorado.
"The Service believes that revising the seven identified decisions is supported by scientific evidence and the proper legal standards," Stansell wrote. "As resources allow, these revisions will be completed as expeditiously as possible."
Rahall, who released the letter yesterday, said in a statement that the agency's move highlights the extent to which political ideology had influenced the administration's approach to protecting plants and animals.
"Julie MacDonald's 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," Rahall said. "The agency turned a blind eye to her actions -- the repercussions of which will not only hurt American taxpayers, but could also imperil the future of the very creatures that the endangered species program intends to protect."
Some environmentalists said that they were not satisfied with the administration's inquiry into MacDonald's actions. Nicole Rosmarino, Forest Guardians' conservation director, said her organization joined forces with the Center for Native Ecosystems and other groups to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court yesterday over the white-tailed prairie dog's status.
"The promises they're making are pretty thin," she said. Rosmarino added that her group wants the agency to review other decisions MacDonald had influenced, as well as rulings made by other political appointees. "Political interference does not stop at Julie MacDonald's steps."
Tina Kreisher, spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, declared the review a success.
"We are pleased the Fish and Wildlife Service completed the review that was requested by Secretary Kempthorne," she said, "and has identified steps consistent with the Interior Department's long-standing commitment to conserving and recovering threatened and endangered species."