Conservation Groups Challenge Department of the Interior’s Failure to Disclose Public Information

Lawsuit Filed after Agency’s Unlawful Practices Delay Release of Public Records

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit late yesterday afternoon against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) 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.

Over the past two years, FWS 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 applied policies that create unnecessary delays and bottlenecks. Memoranda from December 2017, May 2018, and September 2018 reveal a growing structural framework that allows the agency to prohibit information that is politically damaging or unlawful from being exposed.

The filing asks the Court for an injunction prohibiting the Department of the Interior from applying these unlawful policies and practices to impose interminable delays on requests submitted by other 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 producing a few documents, FWS has failed to provide the most significant information requested. Additionally, the few records obtained through the FOIA process verify the existence and importance of the other records currently being withheld.

“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.”

The Southeast Region of FWS serves Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Defenders of Wildlife

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.

Southern Environmental Law Center

For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.southernenvironment.org

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