Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Political Meddling Undermines ESA Enforcement

When Obama's administration takes power in January, they will have a real mess to clean up. This week the Interior Department released a 141-page report on political interference by Bush's appointees. The investigation focused on the actions of Julie MacDonald, an Interior official who frequently forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to alter endangered species or critical habitat designations.

In one case, the Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to identify which counties should be included in the critical habitat designed as important for the survival of the vernal pool species. These are plants and animals that rely on the seasonal wetlands once common throughout the Central Valley.

MacDonald directed that "huge chunks of critical habitat" be excluded, based on the apparent economic impact.

"MacDonald made math errors of an order of magnitude that led to the exclusion of critical habitat based on the erroneous calculations," one Fish and Wildlife Service official told investigators.

The vernal pool critical habitat errors led to the Fish and Wildlife Service being sued. The agency lost, was forced to pay attorneys fees and had to spend several hundred thousand dollars doing the work all over again, investigators noted.

"MacDonald's zeal to foster her agenda caused significant harm to the integrity of the Endangered Species Act decision-making process," investigators concluded. "Moreover, her actions resulted in the untold waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in unnecessary litigation."
While MacDonald has received most of the negative attention surrounding the Bush administration's endangered species policies, it seems to me that she was implementing the preferences of people higher up in the administration. It is notable that, even after she left the department in May 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service still has not designated any more species under the Endangered Species Act, despite ample evidence of species needing protection. The last year has also seen the publication of rules weakening the Endangered Species Act. Of course, the king meddler in endangered species decisions is Dick Cheney himself. MacDonald is simply one aspect of a blighted administration.