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7 decisions on scarce species to be revised

A political appointee had overruled the recommendations of staff scientists.

November 28, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Federal wildlife regulators will revise seven controversial decisions on endangered species and critical habitat made by an Interior Department political appointee who quit in the spring amid charges of improper meddling in scientific decisions.

California's arroyo toad and red-legged frog could regain protection that federal biologists determined was crucial to their survival, according to a letter the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent Friday to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.). Rahall released the letter publicly Tuesday.

Former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, a civil engineer from California with no formal training in natural sciences, routinely questioned and sometimes overruled recommendations by biologists and other field staffers, according to documents, interviews and a review by the department's inspector general. The review outlined instances in which MacDonald advocated altering scientific conclusions in ways that led to reduced protection for imperiled species and that favored developers and agricultural businesses. And she was rebuked for providing internal documents to lobbyists.

She could not be reached for comment.

MacDonald "should never have been allowed near the endangered species program," Rahall said in a statement Tuesday. "This announcement is the latest illustration of the depth of incompetence at the highest levels of management within the Interior Department and breadth of this administration's penchant for torpedoing science."

The congressman held hearings on MacDonald's oversight of endangered species programs during her tenure.

MacDonald, who owns a Sacramento-area ranch with her husband, took a particular interest in California, forcing sweeping cutbacks in proposed habitat protection in the state, according to Interior Department staff.

Under her direction, proposed habitat protection for the endangered arroyo toad, a tiny amphibian that once inhabited many Southern California creek regions, was slashed by 93%. Similarly, the protected area proposed for the threatened California red-legged frog was reduced from 4.1 million acres to 450,000 acres.

Those species are among seven identified by federal regulators in the letter to Rahall as possibly needing further protection.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Valerie Fellows said decisions on whether to add back habitat could be made within a year. She said that the agency was short on funds and staff but "these species are a top priority."

Senior regional staffers and field biologists, who know the endangered species best, determined which of MacDonald's decisions needed reevaluation, Fellows said.

Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Fish and Wildlife Service action was "nothing more than cynical damage control."

The federal agency is under court order to revise past actions pertaining to five of the seven species, Suckling said, and there has been extensive media coverage on the other two. "They're not giving anything up. . . . They're desperately trying to contain a public scandal rather than investigate the depths of corruption at Interior."

His group, which has successfully sued the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service over endangered or threatened species, filed suit in half a dozen federal district courts last week seeking to overturn other decisions made or influenced by MacDonald.

In all, the group has filed notice of intent to sue to gain broader protections for 55 species.

Fellows said she could not comment on active litigation but noted that agency staffers had reviewed all 55 decisions that MacDonald made during her tenure and had determined that her other actions were legal. Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery noted that although officials had concluded there were problems with MacDonald's work, she was legally entitled to make policy decisions on endangered species.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton, countered that political appointees are not supposed to pressure subordinates who are career scientists to change their findings. MacDonald regularly did that, investigators found.

"In my 20 years of government service . . . I've never seen anything like it," she said.

janet.wilson@latimes.com

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