Dominick DellaSala of Ashland will testify before Congress next week, during which he plans to ask federal lawmakers to investigate whether political interference has skewed the draft recovery plan to save the northern spotted owl.




DellaSala, one of the nation's pre-eminent forest biologists and a member of the federal owl recovery team, is testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee on July 31 in Washington, D.C.




The panel is investigating whether members of the Bush administration have put political ideology over the recommendations of federal scientists in deciding how best to protect animals under the federal Endangered Species Act.




Rebuking the draft owl recovery plan for being tainted by White House meddling, DellaSala said the proposal that he helped develop should be jettisoned so a team of "independent owl scientists" may chart the course for the threatened winged species.




"We've said from the get-go that the process has been flawed because the (owl recovery plan) is not based on the best available science," said DellaSala, an executive director of the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.




In 1990, when the tiny northern spotted owl was listed officially as threatened, federal authorities drastically limited logging of old-growth forests to preserve the bird's preferred nesting and feeding grounds.




However, the Bush administration has recently proposed slashing the amount of federal lands designated as "critical habitat" for the owl, further threatening a species that is already declining 3.7 percent annually, DellaSala said.




Congress investigates




The House hearing comes less than three months after Julie MacDonald resigned as a deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks amid claims she bullied agency scientists and violated federal rules by leaking Interior Department documents to lobbyists, among other stakeholders.




In response, H. Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ordered agency officials to submit for review the endangered species decision in which MacDonald might have exerted her position to pressure scientists.




"The integrity of the Endangered Species Act and the decisions made under its authority depend on the rigorous and impartial analysis of scientific evidence," Hall said in a statement issued Friday.




Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service is only scrutinizing final-decision documents that MacDonald, a civil engineer, may have influenced, leaving untouched proposals still in flux like the one pending for the northern spotted owl, the bull trout and the marbled murrelet.




"Just because they were 'draft documents' does not mean that they were not influenced by Ms. MacDonald or different members of the administration," DellaSala said. He added that an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office is in order if Congress does not follow the trail.




"Regardless of what your position is on these issues, I would think that most people in this country want a transparent and honest government," DellaSala said. "That's part of a good democracy."




Among species' decisions being reviewed that could receive greater federal protections are those affecting: the white-tailed prairie dog, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a dozen species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies, the arroyo toad, the California red-legged frog, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Canada lynx.




In a statement, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., commended the Department of Fish and Wildlife for reviewing its decisions.




"While this is positive movement, it is just a start," he said in a statement. "What we have learned to date raises concerns about political tinkering with science that has affected many endangered species-related decisions &

and goodness knows what else &

that deserve further scrutiny."




covers government for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.