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Interior Department Official Tampered with Scientific Evidence

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An Inspector General report accused Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of altering scientific reports in order to limit the number of species classified as endangered, according to a March 29 Washington Post article bearing the title “Official Allegedly Tampered with Data.”

The Congress received the IG’s report this week. The report found that MacDonald violated federal rules by sending internal agency documents to lobbyists, but did not accuse her of a crime. Triggered by an anonymous complaint from an employee with the USFWS, and expanded after an October 30, 2006 Post article, the report found evidence MacDonald’s goal was to minimize the impact of agency decisions on landowners.

MacDonald possesses a degree in civil engineering but not in biology. Despite lacking formal education in natural sciences she instructed scientists employed by the USFWS to change their recommendations on “critical habits.” Under the 1973 Endangered Species Act it is a requirement that only the best scientific evidence be the basis for decisions.

The conservation director of Forest Guardians, Nicole Rosmarino said, “The wisdom of the Endangered Species Act is to provide protection for endangered wildlife and plants based on biological need and to buffer them from political whims…to ensure agency biologists are not bullied and the best available science is upheld.”

A conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, Noah Greenwald believes it is a “travesty” that McDonald, a political appointee lacking the proper education, is “rewriting the conclusions of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to deny protection to some of the most imperiled species in the nation.” Greenwald accused the Bush administration of having “an unwritten policy to systematically deny wildlife protection, dooming them to extinction.”

Fewer species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act than any other administration. Bush has listed 56 species in comparison to the 512 listed under the Clinton administration, and 234 listed under his father’s administration.

The IG’s report listed numerous species which were subjected to altered findings. The Gunnison prairie dog, located on the Colorado Plateau where the states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado meet is one of those species. According to USFWS it has declined by 97 percent the past century because it is threatened by oil and gas drilling, shooting, poisoning, and non-native disease. The IG’s report noted that on January 19, 2006 the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office of the USFWS was told to change their petition in favor of putting the Gunnison prairie dog on the endangered species list. “Per Julie please made the pd [prairie dog] finding negative,” stated an internal USFWS email.

A 2005 survey by Ecological Services of the USFWS states that the “boldness of intimidation demonstrated by a single political appointee” has “never before” been seen. The survey revealed that scientific findings and recommendations were ignored “to build a bogus set of rationale for reversal of these listing decisions.” It also revealed that McDonald “modified the behavior of the entire agency,” and recommended a “thorough investigation.”

For further reading:

2005 USFWS Ecological Services Survey Essays
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Gina-Marie Cheeseman is a freelance writer with a passion for social justice. She grew up on a vineyard ranch in the San Joaquin Valley of California watching farmworkers toil in the searing sun. Her desire for social justice fermented along with (more...)
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