Agency tries to protect ranchers who have been victimized by predators
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA is fighting a court order that would require the agency to divulge where in the southwestern U.S. wolves have killed livestock, as well as locations where wolves have been removed.
Information about wolf depredations and removals, maintained by USDA's Wildlife Services division, should be kept confidential to protect ranchers who graze livestock in the region, according to John Koppel, an attorney for the agency.
"There's certainly a record here of threatening acts, hostile acts and violent acts concerning the Wildlife Services program," Koppel recently said during oral arguments before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Wildlife Services program helps ranchers and others reduce the dangers that various predators pose to livestock.
Employees of the division have been the target of threats and the agency's property has been subject to vandalism, theft and arson, Koppel said. It's reasonable to infer that ranchers who cooperate with Wildlife Services may also be vulnerable to such intimidation, he said.
Matt Kenna, an attorney for several environmental groups seeking access to the information, countered that USDA was exaggerating the risk. Many ranchers are already known to graze livestock in the region but haven't reported any problems, he said.
"There's been no threats of violence, no violence. There's just this speculation that it could possibly occur," he said.
The gray wolf is protected as an endangered or threatened species throughout most of the U.S., but populations of the Mexican wolf in the southwestern U.S. are considered experimental. The designation allows for more flexibility in removing individual wolves.
Several environmental groups -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club -- filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA, asking for the Global Positioning System coordinates of wolf removals and depredations.
USDA officials refused to release such specific geographical data, citing the privacy concerns of ranchers, which prompted the environmental groups to file a legal complaint against the agency.
Last year, a federal judge ordered the agency to turn over the GPS locations to environmental groups, ruling that the information was not exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
The environmental groups say precise data is needed for site-specific measures aimed at preventing future depredations, such as fencing off certain areas or retiring grazing leases.
"One of the biggest barriers to Mexican wolf recovery are these cattle interactions," Kenna said. "What we're trying to do is reduce those interactions."
The USDA claims that provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill retroactively prohibit the agency from releasing such geographic data. Such information also doesn't shed light on the workings of the federal government, as required by the Freedom of Information Act, Koppel said.
"The public interest that the plaintiff is seeking is not entitled to any weight in the FOIA calculus," he said.
Kenna alleged that provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill were intended to prevent information about farmers from being released to companies that requested it for their commercial benefit. In any case, the rules don't act retroactively, he said.
"The farm bill provisions were not even a twinkling in Congress' eye when we submitted the FOIA request," he said. "We relied on the current state of the laws that existed then."