Wed, Dec 17, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Interior Department interfered in science work: investigation

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

The inspector general of the Interior Department has found that agency officials often interfered with scientific work to limit protections for species at risk of becoming extinct, reviving attention to years of disputes over President George W. Bush’s administration’s science policies.

In a report delivered to Congress on Monday, the inspector general, Earl Devaney, found serious flaws in the process that led to 15 decisions related to policies on endangered species.

The report suggested that at least some of those decisions might need to be revisited under the administration of president-elect Barack Obama.

Among the more significant decisions was one reducing the number of streams that would be designated as critical habitat for the endangered bull trout and protected from commercial use. That rule is already the subject of a lawsuit by environmentalists.

“The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another’s misdeeds,” said the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Nick Rahall.

Most of the problematic decisions involved Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, who oversaw endangered-species issues and frequently clashed with scientists. The report does not accuse MacDonald of doing anything illegal, but criticizes her conduct severely.

“MacDonald’s zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity” of the Endangered Species Act programs “and to the morale and the reputation” of the Fish and Wildlife Service, “as well as potential harm to individual species,” Devaney said in a cover letter to his report.

Efforts to reach MacDonald by telephone on Monday were unsuccessful. She resigned in May of last year after an earlier inspector general report found that she had run roughshod over agency scientists and violated federal rules by giving internal documents to industry lobbyists.

After MacDonald’s resignation, the Fish and Wildlife Service began a review of eight agency decisions that regional officials said MacDonald might have manipulated to reach a result that was not supported by scientific evidence.

But Senator Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, asked the inspector general to cast a wider net in reviewing MacDonald’s work and that of several close colleagues.

Of the 20 matters examined in the new report, the report found that MacDonald was involved in 13, and that in 15 “the integrity of the process was potentially jeopardized” by her or by several colleagues at the department.

“This report makes it crystal clear how one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency,” Wyden said. “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.”

The report also recommended new rules to limit the discretion wildlife service officials have on endangered species.

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