Monday, December 6, 2010

Court: Wolf data exempt from disclosure

Environmental groups are not entitled to specific locations of where wolves have killed cattle, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

In a unanimous decision, the court said the specific data sought by the organizations is exempt from disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The judge said that means the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has the information, can keep it secret.

Thursday's ruling met with disappointment from members of the groups. They said the data is needed to provide crucial information they believe ultimately would help preserve Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.

The wolf was reintroduced to eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 1998. But efforts to preserve it in the wilderness often have run headlong into the concerns of ranchers when the animals prey on their cattle. What happens, according to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, is that wolves which are linked to cattle deaths are relocated -- or shot. He said the last census at the beginning of this year found only 42 animals in the wild, a 19 percent decline from the prior year.

Much of that, the groups argued, is because of government action.

In 2007, for example, they said 19 wolves were removed from the wild. That, they said, left a year-end population of just 52 wolves and three breeding pairs anywhere in the world.

Eva Sargent, director of southwest programs for the Defenders of Wildlife, said the data sought would help her organization work with ranchers to prevent "depredation" of cattle by wolves.

For example, she said ranchers can put extra cowboys into the field.

"Wolves are generally discouraged by humans' presence," Sargent said. She said cattle can be moved away or electric fencing can be installed.

And Sargent said there even is a way to have alarms go off when a wolf with a radio tracking collar approaches the fence to scare the animal off.

"In order to know where to center those programs, we need to know where hot spots of depredation are," Sargent said. "And they usually are hot spots, a particular ranch, a particular area."

Matt Kenna, the attorney who represented the environmental groups, said there are other uses for the information.

He pointed out that most of the losses to ranchers occurs on leased public lands and not on private property.

"When the renewals came up, or even before then, we could provide public comment on them," Kenna said. He said that could include requiring ranchers to modify their operations to reduce wolf attacks -- or even proposing that certain lands be off limits to cattle grazing.

The program run by Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with ranchers and others to remove or capture wolves that are causing problems.

The environmental groups sued for the specific locations, saying these federal programs are the "largest factor limiting population growth" among the wolves.

In 2006 they filed a public records request for details of the wolf-removal program. What was not released was the specific location of the removals as computed by global positioning system coordinates.

U.S. District Court Judge John Roll ruled in Tucson last year the groups were entitled to the information. But the appellate court said that conclusion was wrong.

Judge Pamela Rymer, writing for the court, judges said the Freedom of Information Act says the making information public has an exception for data that is specifically exempt from disclosure in other statutes.

And in this case, she noted, the USDA is prohibited from releasing "geospatial information" it maintains about agricultural operations.

Rymer said "agricultural operations" include livestock. The wolf-removal program falls under that, the judge said, because the information concerns "depredations that limit the ranchers' livestock production."

And Rymer said the fact that many of these sites are on public grazing lands leased by ranchers, rather than on their private property, does not change that exemption.

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