Agency reverses endangered species rulings tainted by politics | AspenTimes.com

Agency reverses endangered species rulings tainted by politics

H. Josef Hebert
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

WASHINGTON ” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday reversed seven rulings that denied endangered species increased protection, after an investigation found the actions were tainted by political pressure from a former senior Interior Department official.

In a letter to Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the agency acknowledged that the actions had been “inappropriately influenced” and that “revising the seven identified decisions is supported by scientific evidence and the proper legal standards.” The reversal affects the protection for species including the white-tailed prairie dog, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse ” found in Colorado and Wyoming ” and the Canada lynx, reintroduced in Colorado.

The rulings came under scrutiny last spring after an Interior Department inspector general concluded that agency scientists were being pressured to alter their findings on endangered species by Julie MacDonald, then a deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service.

MacDonald resigned her position last May.

Rahall in a statement said that MacDonald, who was a civil engineer, “should never have been allowed near the endangered species program.” He called MacDonald’s involvement in species protection cases over her three-year tenure as an example of “this administration’s penchant for torpedoing science.”

Acting Fish and Wildlife Director Kenneth Stansell wrote Rahall that the cases were reviewed “after questions were raised about the integrity of scientific information used and whether the decisions were made consistent with the appropriate legal standards.”

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He did not refer to MacDonald specifically.

Problems were found in seven of the eight cases, taken up for review after MacDonald resignation.

The wildlife agency said it will reconsider a petition to list as endangered the white-tailed prairie dog. The petition had been denied, but the agency said after its investigation “the Service believes this decision should be reconsidered.”

It also said it will examine the continued listing of the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, as well as a separate ruling that had been made concerning the mouse’s critical habitat. The agency decision to take the mouse from under the protection of the Endangered Species Act was questioned after MacDonald’s involvement became known.

Four other cases being reconsidered involved declarations of critical habitat for the Canada lynx, the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, the Arroyo toad, and the California red-legged frog.

Diane Katzenberger, spokeswoman for the regional Fish and Wildlife office in Denver, said the decision doesn’t change the agency’s proposal to remove the mouse from protection in Wyoming but not in Colorado.

That proposal, announced this month, “basically remedies any undue influence” by MacDonald, Katzenberger said.

The proposal settled a lawsuit by the state of Wyoming challenging a previous decision to place the mouse on the endangered species list. A final decision on the rodent’s status is expected by June 30.

The Interior Department’s decision does mean Fish and Wildlife will take another look at a decision that left Colorado out of an area considered critical habitat for lynx.

Colorado is reintroducing the lynx.

The agency said it did not find any scientific evidence to warrant changes in another questioned critical habitat decision involving the Southwestern willow flycatcher, saying it was “scientifically supportable.”

MacDonald resigned in May after the Interior Department’s inspector general rebuked her for pressuring wildfire agency scientists to alter their findings about endangered species and leaking information about species decisions to industry officials. The IG found that she had broken federal rules by those actions.

In her three years on the job, MacDonald also was heavily involved in delisting the Sacramento splittail, a fish found only in California’s Central Valley where she owned an 80-acre farm on which the fish live.