May 2, 2007 in Nation/World

Interior official resigns, altered scientific data

Julie Cart Los Angeles Times
 

An Interior Department official recently rebuked for altering scientific conclusions to reduce protections for imperiled species and providing nonpublic documents to lobbyists resigned Monday night, officials said.

A report issued by the Interior Department’s inspector general in March also raised questions of conflict of interest for Julie A. MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered-species program.

On Tuesday, an Interior Department spokesman confirmed MacDonald’s resignation but declined further comment. MacDonald could not be reached.

MacDonald’s departure came a week before a congressional oversight hearing scheduled to investigate whether Bush administration officials have ignored scientific findings in endangered-species decisions.

In 2004, MacDonald was criticized for overruling field biologists on the habitat requirements of the greater sage grouse, disputing their conclusion that oil and gas operations could interfere with the birds’ breeding and nesting.

The inspector general’s report outlined a litany of instances in which MacDonald, a civil engineer with no formal training in natural sciences, advocated altering scientific conclusions in ways that favored development and agricultural interests.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall told investigators that MacDonald overrode field personnel on designating habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Scientists concluded that the bird had a nesting range of 2.1 miles, but MacDonald ordered the number reduced to 1.8 miles, without providing any scientific basis for the change.

Hall, a wildlife biologist, told investigators he was in a “running battle” with MacDonald over the issue. Hall said she had a particular interest in endangered-species decisions affecting California because her husband had a ranch there.

According to California property records, MacDonald and her husband, Charles, own 80 acres identified as cropland in Yolo County.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called MacDonald’s activities outlined in the report “appalling.”

“It’s pretty incredible how deeply and directionally she reached, ordering changes with no scientific grounding,” she said. “It was as if compliance with the law was secondary, at best, and irrelevant, at worst.”


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