Report: Interior Official Altered,
by Juliet Eilperin
Landowner Issues Trumped Animal Protections, IG Says
WASHINGTON -- A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has repeatedly altered scientific field reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions, the department's inspector general concluded.
The investigator's report on Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, said she often sought to reshape the agency's scientific reports to ease the impact on landowners.
Inspector General Earl Devaney referred the case to Interior's top officials for "potential administrative action."
Devaney noted that MacDonald "admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences" but nevertheless repeatedly instructed Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to change their recommendations on identifying "critical habitats."
At one point, according to Fish and Wildlife Services Director Dale Hall, MacDonald tangled with field personnel over designating habitat for the endangered southwest willow flycatcher, a bird whose range extends from Arizona to New Mexico and southern California. When scientists wrote that the bird had a "nesting range" of 2.1 miles, MacDonald told field personnel to change the number to 1.8 miles. Hall, a wildlife biologist who said he had a "running battle" with MacDonald, said she did not want the range to reach California because her husband had a ranch there.
In another incident, MacDonald argued with Hall over the Kootenai River sturgeon, a fish in Montana and Idaho that needs a certain level of river flow to spawn. Biologists determined the sturgeon's needed flow level ranged between 2.3 and 5.9 cubic feet per second, but MacDonald told them to cite only the 5.9 figure, which would have aided dam operators. After Hall demanded she put the request in writing, the report noted, "she ultimately relented and they kept the 2.3 to 5.9 range."
Devaney reported that several Fish and Wildlife officials said MacDonald yelled and cursed at them, quoting the assistant manager for California/Nevada operations as saying that his employees "were definitely stressed, pushed and yelled at by MacDonald."
The report also said MacDonald "misused her position" by disclosing confidential documents to "private sector sources" such as the Pacific Legal Foundation and the California Farm Bureau, both of which have challenged endangered-species listings.
MacDonald was not available for comment Thursday, and Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery said he could not comment on "a personnel matter."
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