The Questionable Authority

It’s no secret that the current administration is not a big fan of the Endangered Species Act. Since Bush took office, only 56 species have been added to the list (for comparison, during both the Clinton and G.H.W. Bush administrations, an average of about 60 species were added every year). If cases where the listing was the result of a lawsuit settlement are excluded, that number goes down quite a bit – I know for a fact that the recent listing of 12 species of Hawaiian flies was forced as the result of a lawsuit.

In today’s Washington Post, we find out about one of the reasons for the drop in listings – the diligent efforts of Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks. Ms. MacDonald, a civil engineer, has questioned, mocked, and overruled the career scientists involved in the decisionmaking process repeatedly over the last several years.

The evidence for Ms. MacDonald’s interference in ESA decisions is overwhelming. The Union for Concerned Scientists documented several cases where she interfered with specific listings for specific species. They, and other groups, have obtained documents including Microsoft Word revision records and emails via the Freedom of Information Act. I’ve read through the supporting documentation, and will blog more on some of the other cases in the coming days.

For now, I’ll leave you with one example of how she has changed findings. This instance involves the White-tailed prarie dog. Agency scientists recommended listing the species (the need for this was relatively clear, given that it’s disappeared from 92% of its historic range). MacDonald reversed that decision, and edits that she personally made (according to the FOIA-obtained MS Word “track changes” files) appeared in the final Federal Register finding. Here’s one example:

Original finding: “However, both documents clearly identify current and projected threats to the species including mortality and habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. We believe further evaluation of the extent of leasing and current and projected oil and gas development is necessary to complete a thorough assessment of the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of oil and gas development to white-tailed prairie dogs and their habitat. Further evaluation also is necessary to determine if such development is currently or is likely to result in significant impacts to the species either singly or in combination with other factors such as plague.”

After MacDonald’s edits: “And while both documents clearly identify current and projected threats to the species including mortality and habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, the identified threats are speculative and neither document provides substantial scientific information supporting the speculation.”

This type of political interference in the basic science used in making policy decisions did occasionally occur during past administrations, but it was the exception to the norm. Under Bush, it is no longer the exception. It is the rule, and there are fewer and fewer exceptions. If this trend is not reversed, the long-term consequences will be massive. Species do not recover from extinction (Hollywood notwithstanding), and the Bush administration’s actions here, with global warming policy, with polution, and in countless other areas have long since passed the point where they represent a clear and present danger to the future health of the planet.