Friday, August 03, 2007

Canada lynx protection: How not to make decisions

Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel

Yesterday, hearings began on Capitol Hill that focused on political interference by the Bush administration with federal agency science and decision-making.

Those hearings have a direct connection to Maine. In 2002, Julie MacDonald came to the Department of the Interior. A civil engineer, MacDonald was a political appointee who rose to the position of Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Several years after her appointment, federal officials began an investigation into charges that MacDonald "bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change documents and alter biological reporting regarding the Endangered Species Program."

Investigators uncovered a trail of, at best, questionable interference by MacDonald in decisions that would have protected wildlife and, at worst, downright intimidation of field staff. They found that the service's field staff were forced to change scientific analysis to suit MacDonald's preference for protecting industry from the restrictions of an endangered species listing. She leaked nonpublic, internal documents to private sector players when they would gain advantage from that information. In one particularly loathsome instance of interference over an Endangered Species Act designation, this engineer with no biological training declared that the Greater Sage Grouse was not dependent on a diet of sagebrush during the winter, saying, "They will eat other stuff if it is available." Should it have been renamed the "Greater Stuff Grouse?"

She also got involved in an endangered species issue in Maine.

Maine is home to the only breeding populations of the endangered Canada Lynx in the eastern United States. The Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed designating a little more than 10,000 square miles of the state's forestlands as so-called "critical habitat" for the lynx -- the land lynx would need to retain healthy, breeding populations. The designation would have meant an additional layer of federal protections; any habitat disturbance by landowners such as timber companies would face more rigorous review.

That designation had been supported by wildlife and conservation groups, but opposed by the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Staff there said the timber industry and other landowners' plans for voluntary conservation measures were enough to protect the lynx. The Fish and Wildlife Service staff agreed with that point of view, but nevertheless proposed to designate critical habitat for the lynx in Maine.

Yet before that designation could become law, MacDonald met in September with representatives of Plum Creek Timber Co., which owns much of those 10,000 square miles, the Maine Forest Products Council and staff from Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins' offices; the congressional representatives were there at the request of Gov. John Baldacci. The state and forestry interests didn't want the critical habitat designation, saying industry's voluntary measures to protect the lynx habitat should be sufficient.

Subsequently, MacDonald made it known to fish and wildlife staff the Plum Creek lands should be left off any critical habitat decision. Because field staff felt that leaving only Plum Creek -- and not other landowners -- out of the designation would be unfair, they excluded all private lands.

Late in the year, MacDonald also ordered all U.S. Forest Service lands to be taken out of any designation as well. The agency, in announcing that all Maine lands had been left out of any critical habitat designation, said their decision was based on "extensive peer review, public comment and biological information."

That's hardly the case. It's true that historically, many of this nation's decisions about management of its resources have emerged from the sometimes ugly intersection of commerce and nature. Yet MacDonald's meddling wasn't about policy or interpretation -- arguably the province of high-level agency staff -- it was about twisting the facts and distorting science.

And in the meantime, the Fish and Wildlife Service has publicly repudiated many of MacDonald's acts and initiated a review of almost a score of them which they say have a high likelihood of being reversed -- including the critical habitat designation for Maine's lynx.

We hope that this time around, a decision about the best way to protect Maine's valuable natural resources can be made on the merits -- not through an abuse of power. We may end up with precisely the same decision that was rendered, but we will have gotten there through legitimate means.

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