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For Immediate Release, May 21, 2008

Contact: Bill Snape, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 536-9351

Government Accountability Office Finds Illegal Political
Interference in Endangered Species Decisions Is Widespread  

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report today finding that political interference in scientific decisions concerning the nation’s endangered species were not limited to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald. MacDonald resigned in disgrace one year ago after an investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General found she had used her position to aggressively squelch protection of endangered species and ecosystems. Today’s report found that other Bush administration officials have similarly interfered in crucial decisions concerning endangered species and their habitat.

“The Government Accountability Office has today confirmed something we’ve suspected all along,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “MacDonald was not just a bad apple, but rather was part of a coordinated Bush administration effort to undermine protection for endangered species — including the recently listed polar bear, which is still subject to harmful oil and gas activities.”

The report cited denial of protection for the Miami blue butterfly as an example of a decision where another Interior official “besides Ms. MacDonald” was involved, noting that “Service officials at all levels supported a recommendation for listing the species” on an emergency basis, but that this other official derailed this listing by instead making the species a candidate for protection. “Today’s report confirms that denying, delaying, and limiting endangered species protection against the advice of respected scientists is the modus operandi of the Bush Department of the Interior,” said Snape.

In addition to finding that other officials in Interior had tampered with endangered species decisions, the report found that Ms. MacDonald had issued a number of informal policies that limited protection for endangered species, including those that called for ignoring scientific recovery plans when designating critical habitat and limiting critical habitat to the narrow area in which species were found. The report concluded that six of the eight species that have been delisted under the Bush administration had not met goals established in their recovery plan and that the Fish and Wildlife Service was not responding to petitions to protect new species in a timely manner.

“The next administration is going to have its work cut out for it to correct the problems with endangered species management created by this administration,” added Snape. Indeed, the next administration will be left with a legacy of 281 candidate species that are recognized as warranting protection, including the Miami blue butterfly, but have yet to be provided protection; a slew of critical habitat designations that the courts have found to be not scientifically based and therefore illegal; and an embattled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in which agency scientists feel like they can’t do their jobs. Correcting these problems will require increased funding for the endangered species program, a schedule for providing protection to all candidate species in the next five years, revision of all critical habitat designations in which MacDonald’s bad policies limited protections, and policies that protect the agency’s scientists from political interference.

Background on the Government Accountability Office Report:

Following revelations that MacDonald tampered with scientific decisions concerning endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed decisions that she was believed to have influenced, eventually concluding that seven decisions needed to be reconsidered, including designation of critical habitat for the Canada lynx, California red-legged frog, 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies, arroyo toad, listing of the white-tailed prairie dog, and listing and designation of critical habitat of the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.

Based on concerns from members of Congress that far more than these seven decisions were tainted, the GAO investigated both the Fish and Wildlife Service’s process for reviewing MacDonald’s decision and whether there was evidence that more decisions should be reconsidered, resulting in today’s report. The report concludes that the agency’s review improperly excluded decisions that were likely influenced by MacDonald, informal policies she promulgated, or other political appointees in the Department of the Interior, stating: “Several types of decisions were excluded from the Service’s review of decisions that may have been inappropriately influenced” (page 11). The report goes on to conclude: “[W]hile the Service focused solely on Ms. MacDonald, we found that other Interior officials also influenced some ESA decisions,” and that “the Service excluded policy decisions that limited the application of science, focusing instead only on those decisions where the scientific basis of the decision may have been compromised” (page 11).

The report discussed a number of informal policies created by MacDonald that resulted in species being denied protection. Specifically, the report investigated a policy put forth by MacDonald that when reviewing petitions to list new species as endangered under the ESA, Interior should only consider information from their files that refutes claims in a petition, not supports them. The policy was applied to an illegal decision concerning whether to retain protection for the desert population of the bald eagle, resulting in the eagle losing protection. The report, further, found that the agency was not meeting timelines for completing review of petitions, stating:

“None of the 90-day petition findings issued from 2005 through 2007 were issued within the desired 90-day time frame. During these years, the median processing time was 900 days, or about 2.5 years, with a range of 100 days to 5,545 days (over 15 years)” (page 7).

The report also found that MacDonald had promulgated a number of policies to limit designation of critical habitat, including limiting protected habitat to the small areas where species currently exist and prohibiting agency scientists from basing critical habitat designations on a species recovery plan because she believed recovery plans “were overly aspirational and included more land than was absolutely essential to the species’ recovery.” These policies resulted in many areas not being protected for severely imperiled species, such as the bull trout and Comal Springs invertebrates. MacDonald pushed for delisting of species even if they hadn’t met recovery goals: “When the delistings were first proposed, however, only two of the eight species had completely met all their respective recovery criteria” (page 20).

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