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THE NATION

Accused Interior Dept. official quits

MacDonald, who oversaw the endangered species program, gave documents to lobbyists and overruled scientists.

May 02, 2007|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

An Interior Department official who was recently rebuked for altering scientific conclusions to reduce protections for endangered species and providing internal documents to lobbyists resigned Monday, officials said.

Julie A. MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species program, also faced conflict-of-interest questions in a report issued by the Interior Department's inspector general in March.

An Interior Department spokesman confirmed MacDonald's resignation Tuesday but declined to comment. MacDonald could not be reached.

MacDonald's departure came a week before a scheduled congressional oversight hearing to investigate whether Bush administration officials have ignored scientific findings in their decisions on endangered species.

In 2004, MacDonald was criticized for overruling field biologists on the habitat requirements of the greater sage grouse, disputing their conclusion that oil and gas operations could interfere with the birds' breeding and nesting.

The inspector general's report outlined instances where MacDonald, a civil engineer with no formal training in natural sciences, advocated altering scientific conclusions in ways that favored development and agricultural interests.

H. Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told investigators that MacDonald overrode field experts on designating habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.

Scientists concluded that the birds had a "nesting range" of 2.1 miles, but MacDonald ordered the number reduced to 1.8 miles without providing any scientific basis for the change.

Hall, a wildlife biologist, told investigators he was in a "running battle" with MacDonald over the issue. Hall said MacDonald had a particular interest in endangered species rulings that affected California because her husband had a ranch in the state.

California property records show that MacDonald and her husband, Charles, own 80 acres identified as crop land in Yolo County near Sacramento.

The inspector general's report also said that MacDonald had pressured staff members to combine three different populations of the California tiger salamander into one, which in effect excluded it from the endangered species list.

A federal judge overturned the change in 2005, saying the decision was made "without even a semblance of agency reasoning."

The report also said MacDonald had ordered department scientists to reverse their conclusions on the habitat for bull trout in the Klamath River Basin. She insisted on a 90% reduction in habitat. The final ruling reduced the habitat from 296 miles to 42 miles, an 86% reduction.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, called MacDonald's activities outlined in the report appalling.

"It's pretty incredible how deeply and directionally she reached, ordering changes with no scientific grounding," Clark said. "It was as if compliance with the law was secondary at best, and irrelevant at worst."

The report said MacDonald improperly provided department information to lobbyists and private-sector interests, such as the California Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.

"MacDonald appears to have a close personal and business relationship with a farm bureau lobbyist," the report said.

In once instance, the report said, MacDonald sent information about a contentious endangered species issue to a friend she had met in an online role-playing game. She told investigators she took part in the Internet games to relieve stress created by her job.

MacDonald often overruled government biologists and recommended cutting habitat for threatened species, saying the economic costs outweighed any potential benefits to the species. But she told The Times in 2005 that because of a miscalculation, she had wildly overstated potential costs in at least one case.

In many instances, MacDonald's changes caused scientists to request that their names be removed from documents. The inspector general calculated that in the last six years, 75% of the endangered species reports from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Western offices did not have standard signoffs by scientific staff members.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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