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Originally published July 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 21, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Agency to review species decisions

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday it will review eight endangered-species decisions that were "inappropriately influenced"...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday it will review eight endangered-species decisions that were "inappropriately influenced" by a political appointee of the Interior Department, throwing a lifeline to 18 species scientists had deemed to be in need of protection.

Scientists, conservationists and some lawmakers welcomed the news that the agency will reconsider the actions of former deputy assistant secretary Julie MacDonald to limit federal protections in those eight cases, but they expressed dismay that the agency chose not to re-examine other decisions she influenced.

The agency decided not to reconsider decisions MacDonald influenced involving two protected species in the Northwest — the marbled murrelet and the bull trout.

Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall told reporters in a conference call that decisions affecting the white-tailed prairie dog, Preble's meadow jumping mouse (involved in two decisions), arroyo toad, southwestern willow flycatcher, California red-legged frog, Canada lynx and 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies will be re-examined.

First as a special assistant and later as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, MacDonald was involved in more than 200 endangered-species rulings between 2002 and May 2007, when she resigned after an inspector general's report that found that she had improperly leaked information to private organizations, bullied staff scientists and broken federal rules.

Interior's regional directors came up with a list of 11 decisions they believed were influenced by MacDonald, but three were struck off the list after "further discussions" with Hall.

Two — a ruling on a regional listing of the marbled murrelet and the habitat of the bull trout — were pulled from the list Thursday.

In 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service staff in Portland had recommended that murrelets remain listed as a threatened species under the ESA because populations in Washington, Oregon and California had been declining 4 to 7 percent a year. MacDonald intervened, arguing that populations were stable in Canada and Alaska, and recommended removing protection for the seabird.

When agency scientists recommended that the government designate tens of thousands of miles of streams from Washington to Montana as habitat critical for bull trout, MacDonald stepped in again, eliminating that designation from 90 percent of those waterways.

Friday, however, Hall said his agency would not review those decisions because MacDonald had not actually manipulated the science.

"It's not inappropriate to take the science and then apply policy decisions to it," Hall said in a conference call with reporters.

Environmentalists called the distinction meaningless. "We have a real problem with that," said Jan Hasselman, a Seattle attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "When a political appointee interferes with the process to reach a desired conclusion of less protection, you can call it interfering with the science or interfering with the policy. The result's the same."

For now, the bull trout decision is being fought in court, and marbled murrelets remain protected as scientists evaluate new information suggesting that populations are now also declining in Alaska and Canada.

Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch contributed to this report.

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