By Kevin Miller
Saturday, July 21, 2007 - Bangor Daily News
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revisiting a controversial decision affecting Canada lynx habitat in much of Northern Maine in the wake of allegations that a high-ranking political appointee wrongly influenced a handful of agency decisions.
The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, H. Dale Hall, announced Friday that the agency is reviewing eight decisions made under the Endangered Species Act. One of those under review is the agency’s November 2006 decision to exempt vast expanses of land in Maine and other states from "critical habitat" designation for Canada lynx.
All of the cases involved a former U.S. Department of the Interior official accused of pressuring agency scientists to alter their findings on endangered species and of leaking information to industry officials.
Julie MacDonald, the former Interior Department deputy assistant secretary, apparently met with representatives of Plum Creek Timber Co. and members of Maine’s congressional delegation several months before USFWS staff decided to exempt commercial timberlands from "critical habitat" designation.
That decision angered Maine environmental groups. MacDonald also apparently ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to exempt all U.S. Forest Service lands from the designation, which was highly controversial in Western states.
Hall said the agency plans to "make sure that the science is true" by revisiting the eight nationwide cases.
"It’s a blemish, I believe, on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior, so we’re going to place a pretty high priority on trying to get those done," Hall said in a teleconference. "We wouldn’t be doing them if we didn’t at least suspect that the decision will be different. But I don’t want to predetermine outcome."
About 10,600 square miles in northern Maine and another 5,000 square miles in other states were exempted from "critical habitat" designation for Canada lynx in November 2006.
Critical habitat designation means that a landowner or developer must submit to an additional layer of bureaucratic review for any projects involving federal money or permits. Projects on private land that do not have any federal involvement are not subject to additional review.
Some of Maine’s large forestland owners — most notably Plum Creek Timber Co. — were opposed to the designation. And in 2006, MacDonald met with representatives of Plum Creek, the Maine Forest Products Council and Maine’s congressional delegation about the issue, according to internal memos released by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Presumably anticipating that Ms. MacDonald would not want Plum Creek lands designated as critical habitat, the Washington office verbally directed that critical habitat would not be designated on Plum Creek properties," reads the June 21 memo to Hall from staff in one of the agency’s western offices.
"Because of the inequity that would result if the only private commercial forest land excluded from designation was Plum Creek property, we determined that all private commercial forest lands should be excluded thereby maintaining cooperative working relationships with landowners."
At the time, Fish and Wildlife Service staff said that Plum Creek and Maine’s other large timberland owners were already working cooperatively to preserve lynx habitat.
"We felt the benefit of maintaining these partnerships and these working relationships ... was much more important and beneficial than designating critical habitat," Lori Nordstrom, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in Montana, said in November.
Nordstrom, who recently became the head of the agency’s Maine field office in Old Town, was traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment.
A Plum Creek representative also could not be reached for comment Friday evening.
The other species’ cases that will be reviewed are: White-tailed prairie dog, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (two separate decisions), 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies, Arroyo toad, Southwestern willow flycatcher and the California red-legged frog.