The fallen lieutenant: ex-Interior official ran scheme to suppress science

By Paul Koberstein

In Bush's war against the environment, Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant Interior secretary, cast herself as the loyal lieutenant who led his fierce campaign to blunt efforts to recover imperiled species in favor of more grazing, timber production and fossil fuel extraction across the country.

The manipulation and suppression of science “is rampant” throughout the process of listing and recovering endangered species, said Dr. Francesca T. Grifo, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, at a congressional hearing in May 2008.

Bush allowed political appointees “to interfere with individual species decisions and propagate policies that reduce the role of science in endangered species decision making,” Grifo said.

MacDonald worked at Interior from 2002 to 2007, and during that time some 200 listing, delisting and critical habitat rules came across her desk. As a deputy assistant secretary at Interior, she oversaw fish, wildlife and parks, focusing on implementing Endangered Species Act, which requires agencies to base decisions on the “best available science.”  As we’ll see, MacDonald often employed the “worst available politics” as her standard.

She was not the only Bush appointee who allegedly sought to rearrange science to fit the administration's political agenda. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, in addition to violations committed by MacDonald, “Others were committed by Randal Bowman, Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Interior, and Craig Manson, the Assistant Secretary of Interior himself. Still others were committed by Ruth Solomon in the White House Office of Management and Budget.”

In addition, a study by the General Accounting  Office, an arm of the Congress, cited an unnamed Interior official (not MacDonald) who blocked an emergency petition to list the Miami blue butterfly. Fish and Wildlife Service officials “at all levels supported a recommendation for listing the species,” the GAO said. But one Interior official, citing a Florida state management plan and the existence of a captive-bred population, determined that emergency listing was not warranted.

Besides colliding with the Bush political agenda, the needs of wildlife in at least one instance conflicted with MacDonald’s business interests at her farm near Sacramento, according to an investigation by the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

MacDonald was allowed by her superiors to influence the fate of the northern spotted owl, even though they were well aware of the serious allegations against her. The Inspector General, Earl Devaney, launched his investigation into her activities after receiving an anonymous complaint in April 2006, and it released the first of two scathing reports in March 2007. But she was allowed to keep her job until May 1, 2007 — just days after her work on the owl was finished with the release of the industry-friendly, but scientifically flawed, draft spotted owl recovery plan.

She also played key roles in decisions affecting the existence of the marbled murrelet, bull trout, Gunnison's prairie dog and the greater sage grouse.

Decision-makers at the Fish and Wildlife Service worked directly under MacDonald, who was allowed to wield enormous power over which species are added to, or deleted from, the endangered species list, as an email cited by Grifo in her congressional testimony illustrates. The email said, “Per Julie please make the pd (prairie dog) finding negative.”

As the New York Times pointed out, “ranchers, developers and the petroleum industry breathed a sigh of relief” when she overruled a consensus of scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service who claimed that the best available science showed that the prairie dog belonged on the list.

In another example of MacDonald’s meddlesome behavior, she criticized the science showing widespread threats to the sage grouse. As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list it. The Western Watershed Project, an environmental group from Hailey, Idaho, sued, and federal Judge Lynn Winmill ordered the agency to redo its decision.

“The (Fish and Wildlife Service) decision was tainted by the inexcusable conduct of one of its own executives,” Winmill wrote in her December 2007 order. “Julie MacDonald, a Deputy Assistant Secretary who was neither a scientist nor a sage-grouse expert, had a well-documented history of intervening in the listing process to ensure that the ‘best science’ supported a decision not to list the species. Her tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating FWS staffers. Her extensive involvement in the sage-grouse listing decision process taints the FWS’s decision and requires reconsideration without her involvement.”

Agency gags its own scientists

Under Bush, when a species is added to the endangered species list, it usually happens after citizens file a petition; the agency rarely initiates its own ESA action.

But a Fish and Wildlife Service policy instituted in May 2005 made it hard for its own scientists to fairly evaluate citizen petitions. The policy imposed a gag order on any scientist who possesses information in support of a citizen petition. This policy “explicitly prevents its scientists from using information they already have within their own files to support a citizen's petition,” Grifo says.

The policy, rescinded in November 2006, was in effect at a time when the Fish and Wildlife Service was setting a record for the longest time span in history in which it added no new species to the endangered species list.

From May 2006, when Dirk Kempthorne became secretary of Interior, to May 2008 when the agency belatedly listed the polar bear as threatened, not a single species was added to the protected list, a period of two years and five days, “the longest drought in listing in the history of the ESA,” according to Grifo.

During the George W. Bush presidency, the rate of newly listed species dropped to the lowest level since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, far lower than any other administration, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group based in Tucson, Ariz., that specializes in endangered species litigation.

Since 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed just 50 species, for a rate of eight species per year. By comparison, the Clintonadministration listed 512 species for a rate of 62 species per year, and the George H.W. Bush administration listed 234 species for a rate of 56 species per year.

Under the younger Bush, officials may have allowed one species — and possible more — to die off. The summer-run kokanee used to live in Lake Sammamish near Seattle. The run numbered near 15,000 in the 1980s. After years of delays, in 2007 the Fish and Wildlife Service finally denied petitions to list the species, but by then it was too late. Summer-run Lake Sammamish kokanee were last seen around 2004.

Destroying a rare species’ habitat is tantamount to destroying the species itself. Navy land near San Diego was considered critical habitat for the beautiful, highly endangered Palos Verde blue butterfly. The land was exchanged after involvement by MacDonald in what is known as a “section 7 consultation.” The habitat of the species’ last known wild population was destroyed by development, according to the General Accounting Office.

“Had the habitat not already disappeared, service field staff believe the decision would warrant revisiting,” the GAO said.

MacDonald and the murrelet

But scientists have been allowed to use their own information to discredit a petition. In species after species, Grifo says that, under Bush, scientific data has been “minimized, edited, or overruled to deny ESA protections to imperiled species.”

That was especially true in the case of the marbled murrelet, a small bird that feeds in the Pacific Ocean and nests in old-growth forests from Alaska to California. It was listed in 1992.

Documents obtained by Cascadia Times via the Freedom of Information Act show that MacDonald was at the center of these two efforts to de-list species from the beginning of her tenure at Interior.

In 1995, 3.9 million acres of critical habitat were designated to protect the murrelet. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the Washington, Oregon and California population was declining 4 to 7 percent a year. In 2004, demographic models indicated that the population could be extinct within 50 years. In 2007 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that murrelets in British Columbia and Alaska declined by 70 percent over the last 25 years.

In 2003, under a settlement agreement the Bush administration promised to help the timber industry log the murrelets’ habitat, which it couldn't do until endangered species protection for the bird or its habitat was stricken. The industry argued that the bird was not in any danger of extinction, claiming that the larger populations in British Columbia and Alaska are genetically no different from birds in Washington, Oregon and California.

MacDonald was at the forefront of the murrelet status review, questioning scientists’ reliance on certain documents and urging them to give greater weight to unpublished timber industry data.

In one undated memo written by MacDonald to her boss, Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, she condemned the Fish and Wildlife Service for deciding to protect the murrelet. “My review of the data and the Service's analysis does not support this finding,” MacDonald wrote.

She attacked a 240-page draft analysis, dated February 2004, and written by EDAW, a Seattle consulting firm hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to review the murrelet's status. Her handwritten comments describe significant portions of EDAW’s work as “speculative,” inaccurate” and having “no basis in fact.”

“The EDAW report is biased, ignores relevant results, and makes selective use of the literature,” she wrote to Manson. “This reaches the level of deliberate falsehoods.”

She also accused EDAW of having “either failed to contact key researchers, or deliberately ignored their results.”

Her questioning of scientific materials continued even after the Fish and Wildlife Service completed its final status review of the murrelet. On Aug. 30, 2004, the agency concluded that the three-state population was distinct enough from the bird’s other populations to merit protection under the law. It even drafted a news release to that effect. But the next day, when the decision reached MacDonald’s desk for final approval, she reversed it, and personally redrafted the news release.

“The documents reveal that Ms. McDonald inserted her political goals into a scientific review about the survival of a threatened species,” observed Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice. “Her goal appears to have been to pave the way for increased old-growth logging in Washington, Oregon, and California.”

However, MacDonald's decision did not automatically remove the murrelet from the endangered species list.

In September 2006, at the request of the industry, the agency proposed to shrink the amount of land protected as critical habitat for the murrelet from about 3.8 million acres of mostly old-growth near the Pacific Coast to about 200,000 acres — a 94 percent reduction. In March 2008, the agency dropped that proposal. Finally, in July, the agency reduced the murrelet’s protected area to about 3.6 million acres.

This was a slap in the face of the Bureau of Land Management, which was planning to open huge areas of the murrelet's old-growth habitat to clearcutting. With the bird protected under Endangered Species Act, the BLM can’t do that.

Although the murrelet remains protected today, its situation is precarious. Recent demographic models indicate that populations in Washington, Oregon, and California could be extinct within 50 years.

MacDonald’s botched decision nevertheless provided the logging industry with fodder to continue seeking to reduce protection for the murrelet and threaten to overturn 20 years of conservation policy in the Pacific Northwest, according to Earthjustice.

“An angry woman”

The species that were removed from the endangered species list during the Bush years includes one that, by numerous accounts, deserves continuing protection.

The Sacramento splittail, a small minnow, was listed in 1999, after decades of development in California's Central Valley that cost the fish massive amounts of habitat. Its population declined by 62 percent over 15 years during the 1980s and '90s. But a farming association opposed protecting the splittail and sued.

One of the farmers in the Central Valley happened to be Julie MacDonald, who has owned an 80 acre spread west of Sacramento since 1990.

In 2000, before she was hired, she attended a neighborhood meeting concerning the splittail. According to the Inspector General, the minutes noted, “Ms. MacDonald stated that the reason she is at the meeting is that it took she and her husband 18 years to buy the land that they own, and they do not want the government telling them what they can or cannot do.”

The report quoted a neighbor of MacDonald who characterized her as a “conspiracy theorist,” and “ideologue,” who believed, erroneously, that her land was in jeopardy of being impacted by the splittail.

The neighbor added that MacDonald was “vehemently” and “acrimoniously” against a proposal to construct a wildlife refuge near her home. MacDonald felt that the refuge would be a “federal land grab,” a sentiment that the neighbor described as “typical” of landowners in the area.

MacDonald started her job in 2002 at the Interior Department as an aide to Secretary Gail Norton, and had been there just a year when the Sacramento splittail decision came across her desk. Suddenly, she had the power to help remove the splittail's special protection almost all by herself.

There was a strong consensus among scientists within the agency to keep the splittail on the list, but the agency deleted it just the same. MacDonald's fingerprints were all over that decision.

Documents show that MacDonald herself edited the decision on the fish, at one point softening scientists' conclusion that the species “is likely” experiencing a population decline, to say it “may be” in such a decline.

One agency official told the Contra Costa Times that although the recommendation to take the fish off the list was made in Sacramento, “without a doubt the decision was made the way it was because of pressure from Julie MacDonald. She was the one that forced the decision.”

The edits made by MacDonald were voluminous. The most significant changes were made to the statistical analysis of splittail population data. More than 500 changes were made specifically by MacDonald, most of which successfully made it to the final rule, according to Interior's Inspector General.

The decision expressly ignored the most recent population trend studies that supported the scientific consensus, the Center for Biological Diversity said in 2007. “The decision to remove the splittail violated the best available scientific information standard and was arbitrary and capricious.” It also apparently broke the law.

The Interior Department investigation could find no record of any recusals submitted by MacDonald to limit or withdraw herself from participation on the splittail or any other endangered species matters that may have impacted her farm and its potential financial interests.

On Aug. 22, 2007, the Inspector General asked the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute MacDonald for her lack of ethics during the splittail decision. At the time, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was facing ethical allegations of his own and soon resigned. The Justice Department declined to prosecute the ethics case against MacDonald.

The Inspector General issued two reports that found MacDonald had violated ethical standards during the splittail affair, and another that found that her conduct violated regulations for giving preferential treatment to industry groups. She resigned on May 1, 2007.

The Inspector General found that MacDonald was “heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program's scientific reports from the field.” As for her qualifications to make these kinds of biological judgments, the Inspector General said she had none. “MacDonald admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences, such as biology.”

The Inspector General also looked into potential conflicts of interest while MacDonald was looking for a new job in late 2006 and early 2007, a period during which she was potentially involved with several endangered species decisions, but not the northern spotted owl (she had recused herself). Her signature appears on documents related to the polar bear, Canada lynx and 13 other species.

One target of her search was an industry association whose members would be more than a little affected by decisions on the owl: the American Forest & Paper Association. One of the association's members is the American Forest Products Council, the same group that has been negotiating a deal with the Bush administration providing for massive clearcutting in spotted owl habitat in Oregon.

MacDonald's behavior during her employment at the Interior Department might have seemed familiar to her old neighbors at the farm.

An anonymous complaint from a Fish and Wildlife Service employee said MacDonald had persistently harassed, bullied, and insulted FWS employees to change documents and 'ignore good science' related to the Endangered Species Program.”

Another employee said that MacDonald did not want to list species, but preferred to ensnare them in litigation. A third employee described MacDonald as an “angry woman” who had been abusive to her. She added that MacDonald had demoralized employees with her interference with endangered species studies, often reaching “way down the line” to make sure that reports said what she wanted them to say.

Righting seven wrongs... or is it 55? 80? 200?

In May 2007, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett asked Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall to review decisions that “may have been inappropriately modified or changed by MacDonald.”

In turn, Hall contacted regional directors around the country, who identified eight decisions that might need to be re-examined to make sure they were legal. Other decisions were not reconsidered because “MacDonald's impact on the decisions was minimal.” The agency chose not to reconsider decisions involving the marbled murrelet, bull trout and Sacramento splittail.

The eight decisions (including two involving one species, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse), reconsidered by the Fish and Wildlife Service were:

Hawaiian picture-wing flies proposed critical habitat: MacDonald directed in the proposed rule that the critical habitat for each of the 12 federally listed Hawaiian picture-wing flies consist of no more than 1 acre per species.

Preble's meadow jumping mouse 12-month finding and proposed delisting: MacDonald was involved in a decision to move forward with a proposal to delist the mouse based on a preliminary genetics report that had not been accepted for publication at the time of the proposal.

Preble's meadow jumping mouse, final critical habitat: MacDonald 's involvement may have affected the extent of the critical habitat designation.

White-tailed prairie dog 90-day petition finding: The field office drafted a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog. The finding concluded the information in the petition was substantial and warranted further review of the species' status. MacDonald revised the document to be a “not-substantial” finding and the Service published the document with her edits.

California red-legged frog, final critical habitat: MacDonald 's involvement may have affected the extent of the critical habitat designation.

Canada Lynx, final critical habitat: MacDonald 's involvement may have affected the extent of the critical habitat designation.

Arroyo toad final critical habitat: MacDonald's involvement may have affected the extent of the critical habitat designation.

The Fish and Wildlife Service chose not to look into northern spotted owl decisions on its recovery plan and on critical habitat. Reps. Nick Rahall and Peter Defazio asked the GAO to investigate, but it did not.

Over a year ago, Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector  General also to investigate the owl decisions. They have yet to issue any findings.

“No one seems to know why,” said Dominick DellaSala.

The agency also reviewed a final critical habitat decision for the southwestern willow flycatcher. Initially, the agency believed that MacDonald's involvement might have affected the extent of the critical habitat designation. But it found the decision to be scientifically supportable, and did not change it.

The Sacramento splittail still remains off the endangered species list. The Fish and Wildlife Service promised to investigate the incident following the Interior Department investigation. Despite clear evidence of political   interference with a scientific determination, the agency still has not announced that it will revisit the decision to take the splittail off the endangered species list.

Of the 200 decisions that crossed MacDonald’s desk, who knows how many were tainted. The Union of Concerned Scientists questions 80 decisions affecting 78 species. The Center for Biological Diversity in August 2007 filed a notice of intent to file federal lawsuits to require the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the Sacramento splittail delisting ruling among 55 decisions it considers to be “wrongful.”

“The corruption which promoted the illegal actions goes far deeper than Julie MacDonald,” the Center said.

The groups said several decisions affecting old-growth forest species were tainted, including salmon, bull trout, the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl.

Most of these decisions are now under investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Interior, the Government Accountability Office or the courts.                                                      

 

Paul Koberstein