Groups challenge Interior’s failure to disclose public information

Bald eagles were once listed as an endangered species but years of advocacy has led to a rebound in the population. (© Lynda Richardson)

Today SELC and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Interior officials for failing to produce public records relating to the agency’s adoption of quotas to limit or reduce the number of imperiled species protected under the Endangered Species Act in the Southeast.

The Department of the Interior is creating a culture of secrecy around decisions they know the public would never support.”

——Senior Attorney Sam Evans

Over the past two years, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior have adopted policy changes and practices that have severely slowed the disclosure of records that belong to the public. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires public records to be provided “promptly” upon request, but the agencies have instead created unnecessary delays and bottlenecks. Memoranda from December 2017, May 2018, and September 2018 reveal a growing structural framework that allows the agency to conceal information that is politically embarrassing or shows unlawful conduct.

Today’s filing asks the court for an injunction prohibiting the Department of the Interior from applying these unlawful policies and practices imposing interminable delays on requests submitted by members of the public.

“The Department of the Interior, in a trend that we’ve seen throughout this administration, is creating a culture of secrecy around decisions they know the public would never support,” said Sam Evans, SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program Leader. “We’ve asked for important records about decisions that could make the difference between whether rare species recover or vanish into extinction, but they’ve been delayed, with no end in sight because of these unlawful policies.”

SELC and Defenders of Wildlife first filed the FOIA request in August 2018 for information related to the agency’s actions in the Southeast Region. After initially acknowledging the request and belatedly producing a few documents, the agency has failed to provide information about how its new policies are affecting specific decisions.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to make a number of significant decisions about whether certain species will be protected by the Endangered Species Act,” said Ben Prater, Southeast Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “It is critically important for the public to have the full picture for how the agency’s quotas for de-listing are affecting these decisions. It’s ridiculous that these important public records continue to be shrouded in secrecy as a result of policies that serve no legitimate or lawful purpose.”

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