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Posted: 6:47 AM- An Interior Department official has come under fire from environmental groups for disregarding a series of recommendations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect as many as eight threatened animal, fish and plant species - including several in Utah - under the Endangered Species Act.
Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary, has rejected the findings of Fish and Wildlife biologists and reversed or altered agency findings on the Gunnison sage-grouse, the white-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison's prairie dog, among others, according to documents obtained by conservation groups under the Freedom of Information Act.
Gunnison's prairie dog is found on the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah, the white-tailed prairie dog ranges across the eastern part of the state and the Gunnison sage grouse is found in southeastern Utah.
"It takes years and lawsuits just to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to make these decisions. Then [MacDonald] comes along and changes them," said Erin Robertson of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems. "Now we have a whole series of tainted decisions. Interior needs to throw them out so the agency can do the reviews they already determined they needed to do."
Other impacted species include the California tiger salamander, the bull trout, the roundtail chub, the Mexican garter snake and a Marianas Island plant.
In a story first reported by the Washington Post, the documents reveal e-mails and memos in which MacDonald, who joined Interior in 2002 and has a civil engineering background, overruled the recommendations of Fish and Wildlife Services staff.
One set of e-mails from January of this year, obtained by the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Forest Guardians, shows Gunnison's prairie dog apparently headed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. But under orders from MacDonald, the positive finding was changed to a negative finding.
"There was consensus [from FWS] that the species was imperiled. It's the only species of prairie dog where its entire range is vulnerable," said Forest Guardians' Nicole Rosmarino.
MacDonald also reversed a positive finding for the Gunnison sage grouse and rejected a conservation assessment from the Fish and Wildlife Services' Salt Lake City office for a positive finding of the white-tailed prairie dog, based on threats to the species from disease and oil and gas development.
MacDonald told the Post that the recommendations she rejects or changes are often vague and lack the evidence to support their conclusions.
"A lot of times when I first read a document I think, 'This is a joke, this is just not right.' So I'll ask questions," she said. "These documents have tremendous economic and social implications for people."
But critics say MacDonald's meddling in biological and habitat assessments is an example of the Bush administration's penchant for allowing special interests to guide its environmental policies.
On the ground, meanwhile, local wildlife managers say they are proceeding with their conservation efforts.
"It really doesn't change anything for us," said Sarah Lupis, a conservation program specialist with Utah State University's extension services who works on both sage grouse and prairie dog issues.
"Many of the groups we work with were formed when the [Endangered Species Act] petitions went out, and they have continued to operate after the decision not to list was made.
"Most of the participants in our groups understand there will likely be challenges to these decisions or new petitions. So they know they need to keep developing plans."