(Courthouse News) A leaked memo from what conservationists say is the Justice Department advises the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withhold or delay releasing records sought in Freedom of Information Act requests regarding implementation of the Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the memo, dated Sept. 6, 2018, asks Fish and Wildlife to limit public access to records regarding deliberations on how certain species would be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Passed in 1973, the act defines a threatened species as one that is likely to become extinct within the “foreseeable future.”
The agency, which establishes and implements regulations, has broad authority under the act to conserve threatened species.
According to the center, the memo contains a list of types of records for Fish and Wildlife staff to withhold, including drafts of policies and rules, briefing documents and decision meeting notes and summaries.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
The center said records related to the Endangered Species Act have been withheld in cases where Trump administration appointees overrode the opinion of wildlife scientists.
“This is a clear attempt to stifle science and boost Trump’s anti-wildlife agenda,” said the center’s Meg Townsend. “The public has every right to know how our government makes decisions about the fate of our most endangered species. This memo keeps the public in the dark and creates the perfect environment for political meddling.”
Townsend said Fish and Wildlife has already followed Trump administration directives, most notably in its decision last year to prematurely remove endangered species protection from Yellowstone grizzly bears.
In July, the Trump administration proposed changes to the act, citing efforts to “reduce regulatory burden.” The proposed changes would make it easier to remove threatened species from the protected list.
The proposal would also change how agencies designate certain areas as “critical habitats,” which conservationists said are essential to an endangered species’ survival.
“If the service covers up dissenting views, it can get away with all kinds of bad decisions that could do enormous damage to some of America’s most imperiled plants and animals,” Townsend said, adding the withholding of records could be a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
“This Trump memo would send all future Fish and Wildlife Service decisions into a black hole and result in more animals going extinct,” Townsend said.