WASHINGTON, July 20 — The Interior Department said Friday that it would review and probably overturn eight decisions on wildlife and land-use issues made by a senior political appointee who has been found to have improperly favored industry and landowners over agency scientists.
The appointee, Julie A. MacDonald, resigned on May 1 as a deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, after an internal review found that she had violated federal rules by giving government documents to lobbyists for industry. The agency’s inspector general also found several instances in which Ms. MacDonald browbeat department biologists and habitat specialists and overruled their recommendations to protect a variety of rare and threatened species.
H. Dale Hall, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he had asked the agency’s regional managers to submit for review cases in which Ms. MacDonald might have inappropriately bent the process to fit her political agenda. Mr. Hall winnowed the list to eight instances in which he said he expected that her actions would be reversed.
“We wouldn’t be doing them if we didn’t suspect the decision would be different,” Mr. Hall said in a telephone conference with journalists. “It’s a blemish on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior.”
The species that could receive additional protection are the white-tailed prairie dog, Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies, the arroyo toad, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the California red-legged frog and the Canada lynx. The extent of Rocky Mountain habitat protection for the jumping mouse is also under review.
Ms. MacDonald did not return a call seeking comment.
Ms. MacDonald’s actions had sparked an outcry among agency biologists and environmental advocates and led to a series of hearings in Congress on whether the Bush administration was politicizing science.
Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said he was pleased that the agency was taking steps to address what he called political meddling in decisions that should be based on impartial scientific study.
“I am heartened to hear that the Department of the Interior is stepping up to the plate to beginning address the ‘politics trumps science’ ploy endemic throughout this administration,” Mr. Rahall said. “What we have learned to date raises concerns about political tinkering with science that has affected many endangered-species-related decisions — and goodness knows what else — that deserve further scrutiny.”
The conflict between science and political ideology has been a recurrent theme in Washington in recent years, with complaints arising from inside and outside the administration about decisions on oil exploration, timber rights, global warming and public health. Just last week, the former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona said top Bush administration officials had repeatedly tried to water down or suppress important public health reports for political considerations.
Environmental advocates said numerous cases of potential political interference by Ms. MacDonald or others in the department were left off the list of decisions to be reviewed. They cited as examples decisions affecting the status of the marbled murrelet, a small sea bird found in the Pacific Northwest; a plan to help speed the spotted owl’s recovery; and the habitat of the bull trout.
WASHINGTON -- The California red-legged frog is getting a second look from Bush administration officials, who now acknowledge politics may have trumped science in earlier endangered species decisions.
In an extraordinary and apparently unprecedented move, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that it will review how the agency handled eight endangered species decisions going back several years. Officials fear former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald may have twisted policy to please private interests.
"In some cases, unfortunately, it appears there were changes made that shouldn't have been," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall, adding that "it's a blemish on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service."
The new reviews will reopen some intensely fought endangered species battles. They range from removing protections for a jumping mouse in Colorado to shrinking the critical habitat designed for the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Canada lynx.
In California, the agency will be reviewing MacDonald's role in drastically reducing the critical habitat set aside for the California red-legged frog. Last spring, the agency designated 450,288 acres as critical habitat for the amphibian once made famous by Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
Under MacDonald's guidance, the frog's final critical habitat was 39% smaller than scientists had proposed.
"If the [agency] has indeed found that Ms. MacDonald inappropriately -- and perhaps illegally -- interfered politically in what are supposed to be scientific decisions, then, yes, critical habitat for Twain's frog should be re-examined," said Robert Stack, founder of the Jumping Frog Research Institute, a small outfit with an Angels Camp mailing address.
A civil engineer and former California state official, MacDonald oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service until her abrupt resignation in May. She left the Bush administration in the wake of a highly critical Interior Department investigation, which found she appeared to give preferential treatment to private groups.
MacDonald, for instance, was found to have leaked endangered species information to the California Farm Bureau Federation and the conservative Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation that she did not make available to environmental groups.
"I try to respond to everyone when asked for information," MacDonald explained to investigators, according to the report. "It's my duty as a public servant."
MacDonald could not be reached Friday.
Intensely unpopular among the Fish and Wildlife Service's professional staff, MacDonald was accused of having "bullied, insulted and harassed" the agency's career employees.
"MacDonald did not want to accept petitions to list species as endangered, and she did not want to designate critical habitats," the Office of Inspector General noted, quoting one former co-worker.
The investigation further cited MacDonald's alleged interference in endangered species decisions involving the Delta smelt and California tiger salamander, among others. These species, however, will not be included in the new Fish and Wildlife Service review.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former Fish and Wildlife Service director who is now executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, said, "Hall wants to do the right thing," but she criticized the agency for limiting its review.
"It's really hard to believe that only eight decisions were problematic," Clark said.
A career Fish and Wildlife Service employee, Hall took over as director in 2005.
Hall asked Fish and Wildlife Service regional directors to advise which endangered species decisions should be reviewed. MacDonald "did actively attempt to influence our scientific rationale and conclusions on multiple occasions," Sacramento-based regional officials concluded in a memo late last month.
"We are interested in whether the science was modified in an inappropriate way," Hall said.
Hall said he hopes the reviews can be finished this year.
Federal biologists will reconsider several decisions affecting endangered mice, flies and the Canada lynx after an internal review found they were improperly influenced by a former Bush administration political appointee. Among the decisions that could be reversed is the determination last year to slash 90 percent of the proposed critical habitat for an imperiled frog in California. In the East Bay, 99 percent of the proposed critical habitat for California red-legged frogs was eliminated.
The announcement Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the first public acknowledgment by the agency that Julie MacDonald, the former deputy assistant secretary of Interior, improperly weakened protections for imperiled fish and wildlife.
"It's a blemish, I believe, on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall.
It was also the latest evidence that Bush administration officials have routinely manipulated scientific information for political ends.
On Friday, Hall said a review found eight instances where MacDonald improperly altered scientific findings to change key decisions made in the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional offices.
The agency, which is responsible for enforcing protection for endangered species, so far has no plans to revise decisions that were influenced by MacDonald out of policy considerations.
A 2003 decision to take Sacramento splittail off the list of protected species is not among those scheduled for review. However, that decision, which appears to be the first time the agency de-listed a fish, is the subject of a federal investigation prompted by a story in the Times. The Times reported on May 20 that MacDonald participated in the splittail decision despite the fact that her family owns a working farm in an area near Dixon that is important splittail habitat.
"The splittail decision is the major focus of an additional investigation by the Inspector General," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson. "We're waiting for the IG's investigation to run its course."
But the Fish and Wildlife Service said it will revisit an earlier decision to take the Preble's meadow jumping mouse off the list of endangered species and move forward with consideration of listing the white-tailed prairie dog. Habitat designations for a dozen Hawaiian picture-wing fly species will also be revised because MacDonald improperly directed biologists to designate no more than 1 acre per species of fly.
In addition, the service found improper influence by MacDonald in several other decisions that will be reviewed and possibly revised. Those included critical habitat designations for the red-legged frog, Preble's meadow jumping mouse, arroyo toad, southwestern willow flycatcher and Canada lynx.
"We're not redoing decisions that were policy calls on Julie MacDonald's part," said Alexandra Pitts, an agency spokeswoman in the Sacramento regional office. "We looked at those decisions where she had a lot of involvement in the scientific information that was used."
Pitts added, however, that many more decisions could be revisited if officials in Washington ask for a review of how she directed policy.
MacDonald could not be reached for comment.
Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Some critics called it a good first step, but environmental groups mostly said the agency was not going nearly far enough.
Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a member of the committee whose inquiry into MacDonald helped prompt the review, said he hoped Congress would continue pressing for more information from the Interior Department.
"It can't be the end of it because they don't have the credibility to render a conclusion," Miller said. "I think they defined it (the scope of the investigation) as narrow as they could so they have the least amount of liability and exposure."
MacDonald resigned April 30, a month after an inspector general investigation found she bullied biologists and improperly leaked documents to friends and political allies, including the California Farm Bureau, someone at ChevronTexaco and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento property rights law firm.
An engineer by training with no scientific background, MacDonald routinely phoned biologists and sought to weaken protection for wildlife, the inspector general found.
Though the report noted MacDonald took a particular interest in California because of her family's property in the state, it did not examine her influence on the withdrawal of Sacramento splittail from the endangered species list.
Her participation is noteworthy because her family owns an 80-acre farm in the Yolo bypass, which is prime splittail habitat.
Federal law prohibits federal officials from participating in decisions in which they have a financial stake in almost all circumstances.
Endangered species now being reviewed: