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Report finds endangered species decisions tainted by politics

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(Read caption) The white-tailed prairie dog, which makes its home in higher-elevation grasslands across the western half of Wyoming, western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southern Montana, has been suffering from severe declines. Documents show that a high-ranking political appointee with the Fish and Wildlife serves directly tampered with the agency's biologists' determination that the species could warrant protection under the endangered species act.

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A high-ranking Bush administration appointee in the Interior Department improperly interfered with nearly every decision on the protection of endangered species over five years, a report by the agency's inspector general has found.

Julie MacDonald, a Fish and Wildlife Service deputy assistant secretary with a background in civil engineering, "injected herself personally and profoundly" in an attempt to deny federal protection to a  number of species,  concluded a report prepared by Earl E. Devaney, the Interior Department's Inspector General:

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MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the [Endangered Species Act] program and to the morale and reputation of the [Fish and Wildlife Service], 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.

The report also criticized MacDonald's supervisor, former Assistant Secretary Craig Manson, as well as many other high-ranking Interior Department officials, including Manson special assistant, Randal Bowman, and department attorney Thomas Graf.

"Contempt for the public trust"

MacDonald resigned in May 2007 after an earlier report by Mr. Devaney accused her of applying political pressure on staff biologists so that the agency could deny increased protection to species. The Interior Department subsequently reversed seven of these decisions.

This latest report comes at the request of Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests. “This report makes it crystal clear how one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency," said Sen. Wyden in a press release on his website:

"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,” said Wyden. “While I look forward to working with a new Administration with a much greater respect for the law, Congress needs to take immediate steps to make sure that Julie MacDonald’s legacy can never be repeated.”

"Getting MacDonalded"

The Associated Press notes that MacDonald's name became a verb among Interior Department employees: "encountering political interference from senior managers was called 'getting MacDonalded,'" the AP writes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks instances political interference in science, called for all the tainted decisions made under MacDonald's watch to be reexamined:

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As a result of these tainted decisions, developers are cutting trees, filling streams, and bulldozing habitat that threatened and endangered species rely on for their recovery. The Interior Department must reevaluate these flawed decisions as quickly as possible so that the best available science is used to protect our nation's biodiversity.

The UCS says that this report is a symptom of pervasive interference with the work of federal scientists by political appointees.

In the past three years, the group has compiled reports of such interference with scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, and with federal climate scientists.