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  March/April 2007
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Sierra Magazine
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This Species Is in Danger A-OK!
A Bush bureaucrat hurries critters to the grave
March/April 2007

Which is deadliest to endangered creatures: (a) a developer with a bulldozer, (b) a logger with a chainsaw, (c) a trophy hunter with a rifle, or (d) a determined editor with a blue pencil?

Julie MacDonald seals the case for (d). As deputy assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior (a political appointment), she has the authority to shape the evidence for listing species as "threatened" or "endangered." Documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity show that she has repeatedly disregarded the recommendations of career scientists, even changing their findings to reverse their conclusions. This may help explain why the Bush administration has listed fewer species than any other. Failure to obtain listing can be the kiss of death; 79 percent of the plants and animals that have gone extinct since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 were not listed. Here's MacDonald's MO:


Gunnison's Prairie Dog
This prairie dog's habitat in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah has been reduced by more than 97 percent. Other threats include oil and gas drilling, poisoning by ranchers, and sylvatic plague. In January 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the prairie dog be listed as an endangered species. Then MacDonald intervened.

Above, Chris Nolin, a career employee at the Fish and Wildlife Service, relays MacDonald's directions on the prairie dog ("pd"). Accordingly, the original finding that plague was a threat morphed into one that it wasn't. Here's what scientists said at first:

And here's what they said after MacDonald's intervention:


Gunnison Sage Grouse
Only about 4,000 Gunnison sage grouse survive in eight isolated populations in Colorado and Utah. Last summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service was intent on listing the species as "endangered" and had even prepared press releases announcing the decision. Then MacDonald went into action. First she ("JM4") disputed that the Gunnison was a separate species from the greater sage grouse:

This didn't sit well with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, one of whom complained about MacDonald's armchair taxonomy (her training is in civil engineering, not biology) of the bird ("GUSG"):

Contrary to the recommendations of agency scientists and staff, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the grouse.


"Erase all those back e-mails"
In a 2005 survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, many criticized MacDonald for using her political interference to "subvert, spin, or even illegitimize our findings," as one put it. Now Representative Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, is promising an investigation. One intriguing avenue is this e-mail from Steven Quarles, a prominent anti-ESA attorney for a wide variety of industry groups, sent to MacDonald's administrative assistant:

We don't know why Quarles would want certain e-mails deleted. We do know that he represented an industry group opposing listing of the California tiger salamander and that in support of his position, MacDonald overruled staff economists as well as scientists. The Center for Biological Diversity suspects that not all e-mails between MacDonald and Quarles have been turned over and is pressing for further disclosures. Stay tuned.


This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

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