Report: Interior Office Meddled With Endangered Species Act
"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the federal government's official investigators.
Political meddling at the Department of Interior into the designation of imperiled species and habitats was more widespread than previously thought, investigators found, according to a lengthy inspector general's report (PDF) released today.
The report focused on 20 questionable decisions made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, finding that Julie A. MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, had a hand in at least 13 of them. But the report also found that MacDonald, a senior Bush political appointee, had help from others at the agency who "enabled her behavior" and "aided and abetted" her.
MacDonald resigned under pressure in May 2007 after investigators found that she had tampered with scientific evidence, improperly removed species and habitats from the endangered-species list, and gave internal documents to oil industry lobbyists and property rights groups.
Seven rulings made by MacDonald under the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act were subsequently revised, including the placement of the white-tailed prairie dog and Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a threatened mammal that lives in Wyoming and Colorado, back on the list.
H. Dale Hall, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has called the MacDonald episode a "blemish."
MacDonald's influence in the Fish and Wildlife office was so prevalent that one unnamed employee told investigators that MacDonald's decisions got their own name: "It became a verb for us -- getting MacDonalded," the employee said, according to the inspector's general report.
Investigators also noted that they found "an enormous policy void" regarding the Endangered Species Act, which MacDonald allegedly exploited.
The report placed blame on some senior managers MacDonald worked with for failing to institute specific guidelines regarding the placement of species on the endangered-species list. Jay Tutchton, general counsel for the Santa Fe-based Wildearth Guardians, a non-profit environmental group, said MacDonald was simply a "foot soldier" in an office that promoted a "culture of fear."
"Senior managers expressed a total lack of interest in protecting certain species and habitats," Tutchton said. "The takeway lesson is that you have to get senior management interested and excited about protecting species. You can't have a culture where people will be scared they'll get rebuked."
MacDonald said in an earlier interview that she saw her job as protecting "the public face of the Fish and Wildlife Service" by carefully scrutinizing listing documents that often seem vague or unsupported by evidence. She declined to be interviewed for the report. Spokespersons for Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they had yet to fully review the report.
"Where we have identified problems, we have gone back and revisited those decisions," said Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife. "From our perspective, we're moving forward."
Sen. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the report painted 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."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who requested the report, called on congressional leaders to "take immediate steps to make sure that Julie MacDonald's legacy can never be repeated."
"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."
By Derek Kravitz |
December 15, 2008; 6:30 PM ET
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