Interior Dept. hollows out the Endangered Species Act
Unable to dismantle the ESA, and forced by persistent lawsuits to implement it, Interior Dept. officials have been busy trying to hollow out the enforcement mechanisms by which it can be obliged to designate new species and new habitats for protection.
One of the worst offenders has been Julie MacDonald, the Deputy Assist. Sec. for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Her background? Not Fish. Not Wildlife. Not Parks. She's an engineer of all things. Her interests are firmly with those who stand to lose money if endangered species are actually protected within their habitats, as Interior is tasked with doing. Last October Juliet Eilperin of the WaPo gave us a portrait of MacDonald's reign at Interior, which the Inspector General was beginning to investigate:
A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six times in the past three years, documents show.
In addition, staff complaints that their scientific findings were frequently overruled or disparaged at the behest of landowners or industry have led the agency's inspector general to look into the role of Julie MacDonald, who has been deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks since 2004, in decisions on protecting endangered species.
The documents show that MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse are at risk of extinction...
MacDonald said she does not make the decision on whether to federally protect a species, because the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service has that responsibility. But she said she had made her feelings clear in an array of documents; overruled scientists' conclusions in areas where she has authority, such as designating critical habitat; and mocked rank-and-file employees' recommendations....
Francesca Grifo, who directs the union's [Union of Concerned Scientists] scientific integrity program, said MacDonald's actions are "not business as usual but a systemic problem of tampering with science that is putting our environment at risk."
In a few instances, federal judges have overturned decisions that MacDonald had influenced...
MacDonald has repeatedly urged employees to consider the position of industry officials more seriously when weighing whether to declare a species threatened or endangered.
The WaPo also documents how MacDonald arbitrarily reversed findings of fact made by Interior Dept. employees and scientists, and how she sent internal departmental drafts to favored industry officials to permit them to undercut the work of her staffers via the back door.
The Interior Dept. Inspector General has now released to Congress its report on MacDonald's tampering with endangered-species regulation. Though I can't manage to open the document at the Interior website, here is a report from the NYT about the IG's findings. Note the variety of ways that MacDonald found to hollow out the mechanisms that would normally ensure that endangered species be protected—including the no-doubt deliberate suppression of information that would back up the findings of Interior Dept. professionals, so as to invite lawsuits from affected industries.
Their report, sent to Congress this week by the department’s inspector general, does not accuse the official, Julie A. MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, of any crime. But it does find that she violated federal rules when she sent internal agency documents to industry lobbyists...
In recent years, agency lawyers reported, 75 percent of the [Interior Department's] Western offices’ findings on endangered-species status reviews and critical-habitat determinations were sent to Washington without any assurance from career lawyers and biologists that they were valid. Court challenges from both industry and environmentalists are a regular occurrence at the fish and wildlife agency. Making decisions that are vulnerable increases the risk that time-consuming, labor-intensive scientific and regulatory work must be redone...
When the inspector general asked her "why she ignored or discounted" legal opinions from the regional offices, the report said, "MacDonald replied it was a matter of policy, it was what worked best, and it was the result of the risk balancing that takes place" between pursuing policy goals and ensuring decisions have an adequate basis.
She also denied giving preferential treatment to a California Farm Bureau lobbyist who was a friend, or to any of his clients.
The inspector general also found that Ms. MacDonald had sent internal government documents by e-mail to a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation — a property-rights group that frequently challenges endangered-species decisions.
She twice sent internal Environmental Protection Agency documents — one involving water quality management — to individuals whose e-mail addresses ended in "chevrontexaco.com," the report said.
With Bush administration corruption, the new watchword appears to be "Follow the emails!"
Much more information is available from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who have been in the thick of the fight against MacDonald's Interior depredations. They document a series of species whose protection MacDonald interfered with for reasons that may only be described as political. Here, for example, is the hash she made of attempts to protect the Gunnison Sage Grouse:
Gunnison sage grouse is a distinct species from Greater sage grouse and occurs in eight isolated populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Gunnison sage-grouse have experienced significant declines from historic numbers and only about 4,000 breeding individuals remain.
The Endangered Species Act listing for Gunnison sage grouse was subject to delay and then reversal by Julie MacDonald and other Department of the Interior officials in Washington, DC. After exhaustive scientific study, FWS biologists and regional and field staff prepared to list Gunnison sage-grouse as “endangered” and recommend designation of critical habitat for the species in summer 2006. The agency even drafted media releases to announce the proposed listing. Then, documents show, MacDonald became involved after receiving three telephone calls concerning the proposed listing, including one from the governor of Colorado.
MacDonald first delayed the proposed listing by questioning the science used to designate Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species from Greater sage grouse. She was also involved as the FWS Headquarters required Region 6 (which submitted the listing) to reduce the substantial listing proposal to a mere outline of information—resulting in the removal of much of the text that supported listing the species. Based on the outline, and contrary to the recommendations of FWS biologists, sage grouse experts, and field staff, FWS Headquarters decided not to list the species.
Documents show that the Washington office was extensively involved in drafting the new "not warranted" listing determination, demanding extensive edits to the former listing proposal. FWS biologists made a last attempt to respond to and refute comments pertaining to the distinctness of the species, its historic range, the accuracy of literature cited, and habitat loss and threats to the species, but the new information was disregarded.
With this and other species, the UCS provides links to documentation that the Interior Department coughed up as a result of FOIA requests from activists. UCS calls upon the new head of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, to reverse the Department's recent record of favoritism toward industry and hostility toward protecting endangered species.
As the new Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne has an opportunity to restore scientific integrity to the highest levels of the Interior Department. He should first address the demonstrated instances of political interference in science by calling for FWS to immediately withdraw the decisions on species where political interference in science has occurred and allow a new scientific review to take place.
Sadly, it appears unlikely that Bush's Interior Department will change its tune. Another report this week based on leaked Interior documents suggests that the Department has been working on plans to systematize the process of hollowing out the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Here is the WaPo report, based upon a story broken by Salon.com:
The Interior Department is considering a broad revamping of how it protects animals and plants in danger of extinction, including changes that critics contend will reduce the number of species that will be saved.
Details of some of the proposed changes surfaced Tuesday in a number of draft department documents released by environmentalists, who said the changes would amount to a gutting of the federal Endangered Species Act...
One proposed change would narrow when species can be considered in danger of extinction. Currently that is widely interpreted as in some time _ as the statute directs _ "in the foreseeable future." The draft papers suggest a more specific timetable of 20 years for some species and a specific number of generations for others, [EarthJustice attorney Jan] Hasselman said.
"This would severely limit listing of new endangered species," he said.
Also being considered is giving more power to states in creating species recovery plans and in determining what plants and animals get protection, including the ability of governors to block attempts to reintroduce species in their states...
The department also hopes to narrow the geographic range over which a species must be protected. Protection would be limited to a plant or animal's current habitat and not the geographic region it has historically occupied.
Another proposal would allow logging, development and other projects even if they threaten a species, as long as they do not "hasten" its extinction. Environmentalists said currently no projects are allowed if they have any impact on a listed species.
Interior officials paradoxically both defend these proposed changes and deny that they actually represent their current planning. One of the main objects of these nefarious plans, clearly, is to circumscribe any protected habitats so severely that their existence inconveniences almost nobody.
Because the point of the ESA is not, contrary to popular belief, to prevent the extinction of species! Rather, it is to manage the zones in which the species are being extirpated. The larger these habitats are permitted to become, the more likely humans will be affected by having to observe the process of extinction up close.
Imagine, if you will, the last days of the Heath Hen on Martha's Vineyard in the early 20th century. If Bush's Interior Department had been running the show, the island's inhabitants would have been fully protected from the Hens. The last specimens of this species would be hemmed in on the merest corner of the island; loggers would have been permitted to clear cut the rest of Martha's Vineyard; the Governor of Massachusetts would have been permitted to drive away any birds that managed to escape back to the mainland; and an obituary for the last of the Heath Hens ("Ben") would be drawn up and put on file in Boston, in anticipation of his eventual demise a few decades hence (no need to "hasten" it, mind you). In case anybody noticed Ben's disappearance, that is.
crossposted from Unbossed