Political Appointee Edits Science on Greater Sage Grouse

Published Apr 11, 2004

Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary of the interior with no background in wildlife biology, substantially changed the scientific content of a report examining the vulnerability of the greater sage grouse, a highly threatened ground bird that populates the American west. Her critique was subsequently given to a panel of experts that recommended against listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The actions of Ms. MacDonald raise questions as to whether which the decision against listing the greater sage grouse as endangered was based on the best scientific information, as the ESA requires, or on the political interests of the Bush Administration.

In December 2004, the New York Times received a partial copy of Ms. MacDonald’s editing and commentary on a review by agency biologists of the state of scientific knowledge of the greater sage grouse and its habitat.¹ The Times reported that Ms. MacDonald’s critique of the scientific report "showed flashes of her strong property-rights background and her deference to industry views."² Many of her comments challenged specific statements made by biologists and based on scientific studies, without providing a scientific basis for her criticism. Ms. MacDonald questioned the methodology behind studies of the grouse which found loss of habitat and population decline, calling them simply "opinion." For example, she dismissed a statement that the bird numbered in the millions during the 19th century as "simply a fairy tale, constructed out of whole cloth."³ 

Ms. MacDonald, an engineer by training, also questioned the grouse's documented reliance on sagebrush during the winter. Wildlife biologists wrote in the original report that "sage grouse depend entirely on sagebrush throughout the winter for both food and cover." Documents provided to the New York Times quote Ms. MacDonald as writing, "I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it is available."4 Ms. MacDonald provided no evidence of the bird's omnivorous behavior. One scientist, Mike Schroeder of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Times that Ms. MacDonald erred when citing his 1999 study as evidence that the grouse could survive year-round without sagebrush.5

The Times also reported that greater sage grouse habitat overlaps "areas of likely oil and gas deposits across states like Wyoming and Montana," and it's potential listing as endangered would likely become a "headache" for industry interests in those states.6

The panel of experts that recommended against listing the greater sage grouse under the ESA was provided with both the original draft of the report and the critique written by Ms. MacDonald, but Mark Salvo of the Sagebrush Sea Project explains that her critique served to cast doubt where little existed. "[Sage grouse] have experienced a precipitous decline…according to the best available science. She not only has an agenda in making those comments, but in doing so she discredits some very good science on sage grouse."7

Ms. MacDonald has made other interventions in scientific determinations about endangered species. Documents recently made available to the Washington Post show that MacDonald "rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six times in the past three years,"8 often making sarcastic or disparaging remarks about the scientific content in their written recommendations. Some of these other incidents involved a related species, the Gunnison sage grouse.9   

Update: On December 4, 2007, a federal district court concluded that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) finding that the listing of the greater sage grouse as “not warranted” was arbitrary and capricious.10 The court reasoned that FWS ignored the best available science, excluded experts from the listing decision, and failed to logically evaluate the current circumstance of the sage grouse. Furthermore, the court found that FWS invalidated the listing decision partially due to the “inexcusable conduct” of Julie MacDonald, who tainted the process by editing scientific conclusions.

1. Edits made by Julie MacDonald on a USFW report synthesizing the sage grouse situation, October 18, 2004, accessed December 8, 2006.
2. Barringer, Felicity. "Interior Official and Federal Biologists Clash on Danger to Bird." New York Times. December 5, 2004. Accessed December 7, 2006.
3. MacDonald edits.
4. Ibid.
5. Barringer.
6. Ibid.
7. Motavalli, Jim. "Sacrificing the Sage Grouse." E Magazine, December 2004, accessed Novermber 23, 2006.
8. Juliet Eilperin, "Bush Appointee Said to Reject Advice on Endangered Species," Washington Post, October 30, 2006, accessed December 7, 2006.
9. Original documents about Julie MacDonald's interference with other endangered species determinations, including the Gunnison sage grouse.
10. Western Watersheds Project v. United States Forest Serv., 535 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Id. 2007).