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More political meddling found in species decisions in California

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration politically tinkered with more endangered species decisions in California than previously admitted, federal investigators revealed Wednesday.

Decisions concerning the California tiger salamander, Sacramento splittail and other species exemplified a pattern of interference by former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald, investigators told a House panel. Herself an occasional Sacramento Valley resident, MacDonald invariably moved to restrict species protections.

"Her fingerprints have been all over countless decisions," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

MacDonald was not invited to testify Wednesday and could not be reached to comment.

A civil engineer and former California Resources Agency official, MacDonald oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service as the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary until her abrupt resignation in May 2007. She left following an internal agency investigation that harshly criticized her management. Investigators said she appeared to give preferential treatment to private groups including the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The criticism drove the Interior Department to review MacDonald's role in endangered species decisions. The department's extraordinary self-examination completed last year concluded MacDonald inappropriately manipulated eight endangered species decisions, including one involving the California red-legged frog.

On Wednesday, outside investigators cautioned that the Interior Department understated MacDonald's influence. The Government Accountability Office investigators noted MacDonald oversaw some 200 Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species decisions during her five-year tenure.

"Ms. MacDonald was significantly involved, and in some cases possibly inappropriately so, with more than eight decisions," the GAO reported.

The investigators cited as an example the Sacramento splittail, a tiny silver fish found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 2003, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the fish from the endangered species list. Investigators reported Wednesday that MacDonald "edited information" and "raised concerns" that troubled Fish and Wildlife Service professionals.

Investigators further cited the Central California tiger salamander found around Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties. MacDonald insisted on lumping the Central California salamander population together with populations found elsewhere, causing a downgrading of federal protections. A federal court later overturned the move.

"Service staff described a climate of 'Julie-proofing,'" GAO investigator Robin M. Nazzaro reported. "In response to continual questioning by Ms. MacDonald about their scientific reasoning, they eventually learned to anticipate what might be approved and wrote their decisions accordingly."

Nazzaro added that other top Interior Department political appointees including Craig Manson, a one-time California judge who served as MacDonald's Interior Department boss, likewise shaped endangered species decision-making. Nazzaro said Manson "impacted" at least three endangered species decisions, but did not elaborate.

"The integrity of the science and of the process is absolutely clear," responded R. Lyle Laverty, assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks.

Laverty, a former Forest Service ranger and Colorado state parks director, was appointed a year ago. He insisted Wednesday that the Interior Department has "made great strides" in improving decision-making and will "maintain a strong emphasis on ethical conduct."

Laverty's department is now cleaning up after MacDonald, including plans to issue new red-legged frog habitat by Aug. 29.

Last spring, the agency designated 450,288 acres as critical habitat for the amphibian once made famous by Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The critical habitat was 39 percent smaller than scientists originally proposed.

GAO investigators elaborated Wednesday that MacDonald had directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to "disregard some scientific studies" and cut the critical habitat to the "minimum range" possible.

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