Systematic Interference with Science at Interior Department Exposed

Published Aug 1, 2008

Recently obtained documents demonstrate that former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald and other high-ranking political appointees within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at the Department of the Interior have systematically distorted, manipulated, and misused the scientific process prescribed by the Endangered Species Act. In several notable cases, this interference resulted in changing a "positive" finding--in favor of protecting species under the Endangered Species Act--to a "negative" finding. In making these changes, MacDonald, whose training is in engineering, overrode the recommendations of the agency's own biologists.

These examples of the manipulation and distortion of scientific information at the Interior Department are the tip of the iceberg. A Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) survey of scientists at the FWS, released in February 2005, demonstrated pervasive political interference in science at the agency. Unfortunately, the significant editing of scientific documents described below shows that the misuse of science at the FWS has continued.

Restoring scientific integrity at Interior

As the new Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne has an opportunity to restore scientific integrity to the highest levels of the Interior Department. He should first address the demonstrated instances of political interference in science by calling for FWS to immediately withdraw the decisions on species where political interference in science has occurred and allow a new scientific review to take place.

Second, to address the larger systemic pattern of interference with science at the Interior Department and prevent future abuses, Secretary Kempthorne should:

  • Create explicit policies that reinforce a culture of scientific openness, allow FWS biologists to do their jobs, and punish political appointees and others at the agency who interfere with science. 
  • Ensure that Endangered Species Act decisions are based on the best available science and improve the transparency of and public disclosure of the Endangered Species Act determination process.
  • Make adequate resources available to FWS to allow appropriate, science-based Endangered Species Act decisions.
  • Engage in a systematic review of all decisions where political interference has been exposed to ensure that the science behind those decisions was not altered or distorted.

The newest cases of political interference

The American public has a right to expect all science-based public policy decisions to be based on the best available science.  In some cases, this is actually a legal requirement. The FWS, for example, is required to use the best available science when deciding whether to protect a species under the Endangered Species Act.

Below, we describe these startling new examples of political interference with endangered species science from Julie MacDonald’s office at FWS. Affected species include the greater sage grouse, the Gunnison sage grouse, the white-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison’s prairie dog, a fish known as the roundtail chub, a tree found in the Mariana Islands, and several other species.

Julie MacDonald reverses scientists' decisions by decree

Gunnison’s Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)
The buff-colored Gunnison’s prairie dog lives in sagebrush grasslands in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.  Its current habitat has been reduced by more than 90% of its historical range, and the onslaught on its home territory has not diminished. Oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl, sylvatic plague, and continued shooting and poisoning of these animals all threaten the species with extinction.  

Forest Guardians, in response to a routine Freedom of Information Act request, received several documents that show that as of January 19, 2006, the Gunnison's prairie dog was on track for a positive 90-day finding—that is, a FWS determination that the species may deserve protection as endangered based on scientific evidence. Nevertheless, because of explicit orders from Julie MacDonald, the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office of FWS (Region 6) was forced to change their positive finding to a negative one. Download supporting documentation (pdf).

White-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomis leucurus)
The White-tailed prairie dog, with its characteristic white-tipped tail and black cheek markings, makes its home in higher-elevation grasslands across the western half of Wyoming, western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southern Montana.  Unfortunately, the white-tailed prairie dog is suffering severe declines, having vanished from 92 percent of its historical habitat, and is headed for extinction without assertive and committed conservation action.

Documents show that MacDonald directly tampered with a scientific determination by FWS biologists that the white-tailed prairie dog could warrant Endangered Species Act protection, and further, prevented the agency from fully reviewing the animal's status. Handwritten and Microsoft Word "track changes" edits show MacDonald herself eliminated or disregarded information from the draft finding that would have led to a positive determination, while declaring that further study is necessary. She also changed scientific conclusions, and even added erroneous scientific information that confused the distinct white-tailed and black-tailed prairie dog colonies. Accompanying emails indicate MacDonald ordered the finding to be changed from positive to negative. Download supporting documentation (pdf).

Roundtail Chub (Gila robusta)
A similar reversal was made for a distinct population segment of the Roundtail Chub--a southwestern fish imperiled by a combination of non-native fish introductions and degradation of its stream and river habitat--in the lower Colorado River Basin.

In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the population, FWS determined that the lower Colorado River population of the Chub is not significant to the species as a whole and thus did not qualify for listing. This finding reversed the conclusions of the field office in Arizona, which determined that the population was significant because its loss would mean the species was eliminated from roughly a third of its range, because it occurs in a unique ecological setting, and to a lesser extent because of genetic differences. Download supporting documentation (pdf).

Science overturned at politicians' request

Gunnison Sage Grouse (Centrocercus minimus)Gunnison sage grouse is a distinct species from Greater sage grouse and occurs in eight isolated populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Gunnison sage-grouse have experienced significant declines from historic numbers and only about 4,000 breeding individuals remain.

The Endangered Species Act listing for Gunnison sage grouse was subject to delay and then reversal by Julie MacDonald and other Department of the Interior officials in Washington, DC. After exhaustive scientific study, FWS biologists and regional and field staff prepared to list Gunnison sage-grouse as “endangered” and recommend designation of critical habitat for the species in summer 2006. The agency even drafted media releases to announce the proposed listing. Then, documents show, MacDonald became involved after receiving three telephone calls concerning the proposed listing, including one from the governor of Colorado.

MacDonald first delayed the proposed listing by questioning the science used to designate Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species from Greater sage grouse. She was also involved as the FWS Headquarters required Region 6 (which submitted the listing) to reduce the substantial listing proposal to a mere outline of information—resulting in the removal of much of the text that supported listing the species. Based on the outline, and contrary to the recommendations of FWS biologists, sage grouse experts, and field staff, FWS Headquarters decided not to list the species.

Documents show that the Washington office was extensively involved in drafting the new "not warranted" listing determination, demanding extensive edits to the former listing proposal. FWS biologists made a last attempt to respond to and refute comments pertaining to the distinctness of the species, its historic range, the accuracy of literature cited, and habitat loss and threats to the species, but the new information was disregarded.  Download supporting documentation (pdf).

Tabernaemontana rotensis, a rare island tree
Tabernaemontana rotensis is a medium-sized tree with white flowers and orange-red fruit that grows in the Northern Mariana Islands. The species is reduced to approximately 30 plants found primarily on lands managed by the U.S. Air Force. 

In 2000, FWS published a rule recognizing T. rotensis as a species and proposing to list it as an endangered species. In April 2004, the decision to list was reversed because FWS decided to no longer recognize T. rotensis as a species. Documents show that DOI made the decision not to recognize the species in response to comments from the Air Force. 

This decision runs counter to the recommendations of the Pacific Islands office of FWS, the primary scientists that work on the species, and the peer reviewers of the proposed rule, who all supported listing, and to all of the published literature, except one book. Although we do not have direct evidence of Julie MacDonald's involvement in this decision, which may only be because they redacted her name, the documents do show direct meddling by DOI in undermining protection for a highly imperiled plant. Contact the Center for Biological Diversity for supporting documentation.

Other affected species

The media has previously reported other individual examples of the manipulation, suppression, and distortion of Endangered Species Act science by Julie MacDonald and other Interior Department appointees, including:

  • The greater sage grouse: MacDonald changed scientific documents to prevent the protection of another species of sage grouse  (New York Times and supporting documentation (both pdf), 12/5/04)
  • The marbled murrelet: FWS Headquarters went against the recommendations of staff biologists with regard to this seabird (Corvallis Gazette-Times, 9/2/04)
  • The Delta smelt: Macdonald interfered in the scientific process regarding an imperiled fish species (documents obtained by Earthjustice)
  • Wolverines: A court decision ruling that the FWS had ignored "substantial scientific information" in deciding whether or not to protect the animal (Washington Post, 10/6/06)

The Bush Administration has listed far fewer species under the Endangered Species Act than previous Republican and Democratic administrations. The Center for Biological Diversity has put together a detailed comparison of ESA decisions under different presidents (pdf).