show that [deputy assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie] MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse are at risk of extinction. Career officials and scientists urged the department to identify the species as either threatened or endangered.
MacDonald is a civil engineer by training, and does not have direct power to approve or reject petitions for listing a species. Instead, she applied pressure to the experts, in many cases presenting the expert judgement of government scientists as equivalent to the self-interested comments of industry. In looking for reasons not to list the Greater Sage Grouse, a controversial decision that many observers felt was not justified by the available evidence, MacDonald wrote:
This paragraph completely ignores the comments received by the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association and the Idaho Cattle Association.
At the time, she was criticized for writing that scientific estimates of the pre-settlement populations of the sage grouse were “simply a fairy tale, constructed out of whole cloth.” She waved away numerous studies which indicated that grouse populations were in a uniform decline, inserting a passage into the report beginning ”all of these data are badly flawed in some manner.”
The New York Times’ Felicity Barringer wrote that “The consistent thrust of Ms. MacDonald’s critique was to dismiss the methodology behind studies that indicated significant declines in grouse population or habitat, to denigrate many studies as mere ‘opinion’ and to seek inclusion of industry comments that she found compelling.”
This is yet another example of the sort of abuse of science that Chris Mooney highlighted so carefully in his book. The issue is not that science was ignored, but that science was misrepresented and misconstrued to hide explicitly political decisions, decisions that Congress did not authorize her to make.
While the election a week from now will be about many things, I see this sort of abuse as a key part of what needs to change. Congress has the power to hold Ms. MacDonald and the other people abusing government scientists accountable. Congress can and should be making sure that important decisions about our natural heritage are made on the basis of our best available science and in accordance with our values as a people and as a society. While it would be nice to think we’d get that from a Republican Congress, history teaches me otherwise.