Rulings on 7 Species Subject to Revisions

By Michael Milstein
The Oregonian

Listings – Sen. Wyden wants an examination of Interior decisions that might be politically tainted

After deciding a Bush administration appointee may have “inappropriately influenced” rulings on whether to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in Washington it will reconsider seven decisions on protecting species across the country.

But that was not enough for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who views the Interior Department as riddled with ethical lapses and corruption, highlighted by the case of Julie MacDonald, said Josh Kardon, Wyden’s chief of staff, on Tuesday.

MacDonald was a deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks who repeatedly overruled recommendations of agency biologists. She resigned from the department in May after she was criticized in a report by the inspector general and as she was facing congressional scrutiny.

Wyden is asking the Interior Department’s inspector general to examine the propriety of federal decisions on other species where MacDonald and other political appointees may have interfered, Kardon said. Those include Northwest species such as the marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl and bull trout.

Because the Interior Department has so far investigated MacDonald’s meddling on its own, “there’s no reason to trust the scope of the investigation, there’s no reason to trust the conduct of that investigation, and there’s not reason to trust the conclusions of the investigation,” Kardon said. The department, he said, “has a culture of looking the other way.”

Wyden has already clashed with the administration over MacDonald’s activities. He blocked the appointment of a Bush choice to fill MacDonald’s position, demanding that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne first deal with ethical failures in his department. But Senate leaders allowed the nominee through last month when Wyden was out of Washington, D.C., for the birth of his twins.

Kardon said there are indications the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is also looking into questions at the Interior Department.

The administration’s move Tuesday to revisit its decisions on seven less-prominent species where MacDonald exerted pressure marked a limited policy reversal. It signals that the administration is still dealing with embarrassing fallout from MacDonald’s tenure.

But the revision of those decisions will in some cases depend on whether funding is available.

In a letter dated Nov. 23 to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Ken Stansell of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the agency spent four months reviewing eight Endangered Species Act decisions made under MacDonald and will revise seven of them. Those rulings affected 17 species, including 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies.

In the course of those reviews, for example, Mitch King, then the agency’s Region 6 director, wrote in a June memo to headquarters that while the field and regional office’s scientific review concluded there was “substantial” evidence that the white-tailed prairie dog could go extinct, “the change to ‘not substantial’ only occurred at Ms. MacDonald’s suggestion.”

Stansell wrote that Fish and Wildlife will launch a one-year investigation into whether to protect the white-tailed prairie dog. Agency officials have also decided not to remove protections from the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, a threatened mammal that lives in Wyoming and Colorado.

“The Service believes that revising the seven identified decisions is supported by scientific evidence and the proper legal standards,” Stansell wrote. “As resources allow, these revisions will be completed as expeditiously as possible.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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