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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Political Meddling Alleged At Interior Dept.

TUCSON (CN) - The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed political meddling rather than science to determine habitat designation for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the Center for Biological Diversity claims in Federal Court. It's one of five recent lawsuits alleging that habitat designations under former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald were tainted by politics.

MacDonald resigned last year after an internal investigation found that she had censored scientific reports supporting protection of endangered species.

The Center claims that the Bush administration "engineered drastic reductions in critical habitat" for the Western snowy plover, California tiger salamander, Southwestern willow flycatcher, Buena Vista Lake shrew and two California plants, excluding large areas essential to the survival of each species from their protected habitat.

Habitat was slashed in the past five years for each of the six species, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction by urban development, agriculture and off-road vehicle use, among other things, the lawsuits claim.

In the case of the California tiger salamander, the Center says, the agency excluded all habitat areas identified by its own scientists. Critical habitat for the San Jacinto Valley crownscale - a plant restricted to seasonal wetlands - was eliminated entirely.

MacDonald violated federal law when she gave government documents to industry lobbyists, according to a Department of Interior report. An Idaho federal district court opinion overturning rejection of a sage grouse listing petition accused MacDonald of intimidating agency staff.

In reports issued this year, the Government Accountability Office and the Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that Interior Department officials other than MacDonald suppressed scientific evidence for environmental protections.

"The next administration is going to have their work cut out for them to correct the problems with endangered species management created by this administration," said Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In August 2007 the Center for Biological Diversity initiated a campaign against political corruption in endangered species decisions, claiming that 57 species and more than 8 million acres have been affected.

The group points to the success of its legal strategy in newly proposed habitat for the California red-legged frog, which the Fish and Wildlife Service increased more than fourfold in September.

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