USDA argued that releasing locations of wolf kills endangered agents, ranchers
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA isn't required to reveal where wolves have killed livestock or the locations of wolf removals, according to a federal appeals court.
The ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses an earlier decision by a federal judge, who last year ordered the agency to disclose such geographic data under the Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit stems from a 2006 FOIA request by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, which sought to study global positioning data of wolf removals and depredations in the southwestern U.S.
The groups said they needed precise geographic information to understand patterns of wolf hunting behavior.
By finding ways to reduce livestock depredations, the groups said they aimed to prevent further removals of the Mexican gray wolf by agents of USDA's Wildlife Services.
The agency refused to turn over the GPS data, citing the need to protect the privacy of ranchers in the region.
U.S. District Judge John Roll found that the release of such data does not constitute an unwarranted invasion of ranchers' privacy, and thus USDA isn't exempt from disclosing it under FOIA.
During oral arguments before the 9th Circuit in November, much of the debate centered on the potential risks to ranchers.
Wildlife Services agents, who help ranchers mitigate the threat of predators, have been subjected to "threatening acts, hostile acts and violent acts," said John Koppel, an attorney for USDA.
For that reason, disclosing GPS data about wolf removals and depredations may expose ranchers to similar dangers, he said.
Matt Kenna, an attorney for the environmentalists, said the USDA's arguments amounted to "speculation," since many ranchers whose identities are already known haven't experienced problems.
Ultimately, though, the 9th Circuit's decision did not hinge on the question of ranchers' privacy interests.
In a unanimous Dec. 2 decision, a three-judge panel ruled that a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill "exempts from disclosure such geospatial data and applies to this case even though it took effect after the USDA withheld the coordinates."
That provision in the farm bill was passed in reaction to another federal appeals court ruling, which held that a private company could access GPS data about farms maintained by the USDA's Farm Service Agency.
Environmentalists claimed the provision only applies to the disclosure of proprietary data for commercial purposes.
The district judge had found that the provision doesn't apply retroactively to their FOIA request, which was made years before the farm bill was passed.
The 9th Circuit disagreed on both counts, ruling that the provision applies to any GPS data supplied to USDA by an agricultural producer, even if the location is on public land.
As for the matter of timing, the 9th Circuit found that the provision did have a retroactive effect on the environmental groups' FOIA request.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's information page on the Mexican gray wolf: http://mexicanwolf.fws.gov