The Bush administration, facing a Congressional investigation into Dick Cheney’s role in the Klamath River fish kill of 2002, is also on the hot seat over reports that a former Department of Interior official, Julie A. MacDonald, politically interfered with decisions regarding delta smelt, splitttail and other fish species.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), on July 18 reiterated their request for information on the actions of MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary at the United States Department of the Interior until her resignation on April 30. They claimed the Department has failed to answer the lawmakers’ questions about her interference with endangered species decisions.

This scandal comes at time at time when populations of four species of open water fish–Delta smelt, longfin smelt, striped bass and threadfin shad–have reached record lows because of huge increases in federal and state water exports from the California Delta in recent years.

The California Department of Water Resources, under pressure from litigation by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, shut down the state Delta export pumps for a period of nine days in June, but then resumed the slaughter of hundreds of the remaining, imperiled 2 to 3 inch long fish when they ramped up pumping. The federal Bureau of Reclamation after temporarily reducing pumping to protect the smelt, resumed pumping at the same time as the state.

The letter by Rahall and Miller describes a July 6 letter from the Department as “unresponsive” to their ongoing congressional oversight on the topic of political interference with endangered species decisions.

“Their inquiry concerns Ms. MacDonald’s potential conflict of interest, her alleged disclosure of nonpublic information regarding the threatened delta smelt and the Department’s apparent failure to adequately respond to any of these questionable actions over several years,” according to a press release from Miller’s office.

“The more we learn about Julie MacDonald’s role at Interior, the more concerned I become,” said Miller. “We have asked the Interior Department a series of questions, and so far the Department has failed to respond adequately to our concerns. There has been an epidemic of political interference at Interior. Congress and the public deserve to know why this political appointee was allowed to interfere in scientific decisions and in court cases to the detriment of the environment.”

MacDonald was actively involved in removing the Sacramento splittail, a native minnow, from the federal threatened and endangered species list at the same time that she was profiting from her ownership of a farm that lies within the habitat area of the threatened fish, according to an article written by investigative journalist Mike Taugher in the Conta Costa Times on May 20. This was a blatant conflict of interest.

The Representatives’ letter and a May 21 congressional inquiry follow a May 9 Natural Resources Committee hearing at which Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett was questioned about controversies in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has enough problems without political appointees at scientific agencies cooking the books,” said Rep. Miller

According to an October 2006 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, MacDonald “personally reversed scientific findings, changed scientific conclusions to prevent endangered species from receiving protection, removed relevant information from a scientific document, and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to adopt her edits.”

In March 2007, the Interior Department Inspector General, Earl E. Devaney, reported that MacDonald broke federal rules by giving non-public, internal government documents to oil industry and property rights groups, and manipulated scientific findings to favor Bush policy goals and assist land developers.

“Through interviewing various sources, including FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) employees and senior officials, and reviewing pertinent documents and e-mails, we confirmed that MacDonald has been heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports from the field,” the report stated. “MacDonald admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences, such as biology.”

Fishing and conservation groups are appalled by the tremendous damage to the country’s endangered species and environment that MacDonald and other administration officials have caused.

“It will be years before we discover the monumental scope of the harm that was done to biological habitat and waterways throughout California and the nation by MacDonald,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “If anybody should have a reserved spot in a federal penitentiary, it should be Julie MacDonald.”

Macdonald’s manipulation of science to benefit wealthy agribusiness and corporate interests needs to be seen within the context of an administration that has repeatedly manipulated and broken the country’s environmental laws for political purposes.

The Natural Resources Committee has also scheduled a July 31 oversight hearing to which Vice President Dick Cheney has been invited to testify on his apparent role in influencing scientific and policy decisions at the Department of the Interior that led to the Klamath fish kill of 2002.

Cheney spokeswoman Megan McGinn, in typical administration fashion, said he was not likely to attend, as quoted in an Associated Press article on July 18. “I do not expect the vice president to testify before the committee,” McGinn stated.

DAN BACHER can be reached at:



Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher