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Interior Department sued over withholding details on trophy permits, endangered species

Interior Department sued over withholding details on trophy permits, endangered species
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The Interior Department is facing a lawsuit after failing to release electronic copies of elephant and lion trophy hunting permits, documents that animal conservation groups say are part of the public record.

The Humane Society, Center for Biological Diversity and Born Free USA jointly filed a lawsuit Thursday against Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for not posting online records of various overseas big-game trophy hunts.

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The groups argue that FWS must release hunters’ permit applications and corresponding government approvals and denials as mandated under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law, they say, mandates agencies post their decisions online for public inspection.

“Although it is unlawful for an American to import an elephant or lion trophy without first obtaining a permit, the public has been systematically deprived of contributing relevant scientific information to influence the federal government’s implementation of these critical elephant and lion conservation measures,” said Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for the Humane Society, in a statement.

“FWS is openly flouting its statutory mandate to proactively post frequently requested material online,” she added.

The Trump administration last fall announced it was overturning an Obama-era ban on imports of elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Facing almost instantaneous public backlash over the decision, the administration in the spring moved to approve permits on a “case by case” basis.

The plaintiffs in Thursday's lawsuit also filed one against the administration last fall that is still ongoing.

Since the spring, the Interior Department has kept relatively quiet about the number of permits submitted by hunters and granted by the administration following the rule change earlier this year.

Some details emerged over the summer when FWS released requested internal documents after a conservation group sued. The cache of documents was made public incrementally over subsequent months and included permit applications made by hunters between January 2016 and March 2018.

Conservation groups are now arguing that the permit applications and government responses should be consistently published online and not intermittently.

The groups also say that withholding the permits and determinations prevents necessary public oversight, especially at a time when the government is working to change the way it regulates the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The U.S. import of African elephants and lions is regulated because the animals are considered threatened species.

“By conducting this permitting program under the veil of secrecy, the FWS is further attempting to weaken and degrade the effectiveness of the ESA," said Angela Grimes, acting CEO of Born Free USA, in a statement. "To fully understand the impacts to threatened African lions and elephants, this information must be accessible to the public. Only then can we effectively protect these animals and the integrity of the ESA.”

The lawsuit follows recently surfaced news that Interior employees are working under internal guidance to refrain from releasing certain documents to the public that might shed light on decisions regarding endangered species.

An internal email, first reported by The Guardian on Thursday, showed that FWS administrators warned staff to not release documents that “would undermine our positions taken in litigation.”

In the September email sent to staffers within FWS’s ecological services program, Division Chief for Conservation and Classification Bridget Fahey wrote, “In light of the administrative records direction from the Department of Justice last fall, we decided it was necessary to provide additional guidance on how to respond to FOIA responses so that we are not releasing information in FOIA that would undermine our positions taken in litigation via the administrative records.”

The guidance includes lists of records that employees should consider withholding from FOIA requests, including most discussions connected to any deliberative process, such as draft versions of policies and rules, internal PowerPoint presentations and meeting notes.

An FWS spokesperson told The Hill the guidance was meant to “ensure accurate and consistent interpretation and application of existing FOIA law by the program that affects how we compile and produce administrative records.” The spokesperson added that the guidance conforms with all applicable laws.

FWS over the summer announced it was submitting a new rule that would change the way the agency implements ESA protections. The proposed changes included ways to make it easier to remove endangered and threatened species from the protected list and cut down on what was seen as burdensome regulations on landowners and industries. Critics, however, argued the changes would weaken protections on the very animals the act was created to help.