Probe finds politics drove endangered species decisions

WASHINGTON — Politics corroded Bush administration decisions on protecting endangered species nationwide, federal investigators have concluded in a sweeping new report.

Former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald frequently bullied career scientists to reduce species protections, the Interior Department investigators found. Species from the California tiger salamander to plants and crustaceans found in vernal pools were rendered potentially more vulnerable as a result, environmentalists believe.

Frustrated scientists went so far as to consider artificially inflating the California vernal pool critical habitat by 20 percent to offset MacDonald's anticipated cuts, investigators noted.

"The results of this investigation paint 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," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., declared Monday.

Rahall chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has been highly critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Endangered Species Act. Particularly in Western states, the environmental law will be one of the biggest issues confronting President-elect Barack Obama's still-unnamed choice as interior secretary.

The Bush administration took office promising to relieve farmers, loggers and developers of some of the regulatory burdens imposed by the Endangered Species Act. Two Californians appointed to top Interior Department positions, MacDonald and Craig Manson, played an especially active role.

A civil engineer and one-time Sacramento Valley resident, MacDonald served as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. Manson, a former Sacramento Superior Court judge, served as assistant secretary. MacDonald, in particular, proved a hard charger.

"MacDonald caused an incredible waste of time and money," one Fish and Wildlife Service official told investigators.

The 141-page investigation released Monday elaborates on inquiries conducted earlier by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. The earlier probes into MacDonald's work spurred the Interior Department to reconsider some of its decisions concerning species, including the California red-legged frog.

The new investigation offers additional details and interviews, fleshing out how politics potentially played a role on 20 different endangered species decisions. The decisions in question ranged from the Northern Spotted Owl to the Northern Mexican garter snake.

"One Fish and Wildlife Service employee told us that MacDonald's influence was so prevalent that 'it became a verb for us -- getting MacDonalded,'" the investigators reported.

MacDonald could not be located to comment late Monday. She has largely stayed out of public view since leaving the Interior Department in May 2007.

In one case, the Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to identify which counties should be included in the critical habitat designed as important for the survival of the vernal pool species. These are plants and animals that rely on the seasonal wetlands once common throughout the Central Valley.

MacDonald directed that "huge chunks of critical habitat" be excluded, based on the apparent economic impact.

"MacDonald made math errors of an order of magnitude that led to the exclusion of critical habitat based on the erroneous calculations," one Fish and Wildlife Service official told investigators.

The vernal pool critical habitat errors led to the Fish and Wildlife Service being sued. The agency lost, was forced to pay attorneys fees and had to spend several hundred thousand dollars doing the work all over again, investigators noted.

"MacDonald's zeal to foster her agenda caused significant harm to the integrity of the Endangered Species Act decision-making process," investigators concluded. "Moreover, her actions resulted in the untold waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in unnecessary litigation."