The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a staff directive making it more difficult for the public to obtain important documents - particularly ones related to the Endangered Species Act and decisions surrounding new listings. Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the controversy all started with a leaked memo.
NG: Yes, so this leaked memo is from Secretary Zinke and Department of Interior and it directs Fish and Wildlife Service staff to withhold documents from the public and in particular documents expressing their opinions of their scientists that then lead to a decision. So, like an example would be a decision about lifting or de-listing a species like the grizzly bear as a threatened or endangered species. So, if one of their scientists were to say "I don't think they're fully recovered they shouldn't be delisted." They're instructing their staff to withhold those kinds of communications from the public.
Did it specifically cite Endangered Species Act related documents or is this just anything that comes out of Fish and Wildlife Service?
In this memo, they talk about some cases where documents got to the public that they didn't like. So, like documents related to the Keystone XL pipeline. They felt like documents shouldn't have been released and then they talked about cases where documents have been successfully withheld and that that was good.
Have there ever been any cases where groups like Center for Biological Diversity have FOIA'd and used these documents or have been useful for public use?
Yeah, for sure. For example, when we overturned de-listing of Yellowstone grizzly bears, you know, we were relying on the record in that case and documents we got from the Freedom of Information Act. OR another example is actually that there's a species in Arizona called the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl that had been denied protection. We got ahold of a draft finding where this where the agency's own scientists said it should have been protected. So, that's an example of that document was critical to us being able to make the case that it should have been protected and that their denial was arbitrary.
Do you see this decision… Well, it's not a decision. Could you actually put it in context of where it is right now as far as becoming a reality?
The directive to the staff to withhold these quote-unquote deliberative documents, more stuff will be withheld. And you know in some cases we won't even know that they were withheld. You know this is something we're certainly going to challenge and look for ways to challenge. It's both against the Freedom of Information Act as well as against the spirit of open government and transparency.
It seems like there's already been a strong response I've seen a bunch of reports about this including in Congress obviously to the Fish and Wildlife Service move. Do you think that this directive will hold long-term or will it have to take a court to actually change it?
I think you know that it's not gonna hold long term. And actually, you know open government transparency is actually a bipartisan issue. But Democrats and Republicans support that. And so, I think eventually through congressional oversight and reports this policy won't hold.