The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 1 for failing to respond to and comply with a Freedom of Information Act request regarding bull trout. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a bureau within the Department of the Interior and has a legal duty to respond to the public’s information requests and release the requested records.
Since bull trout are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act we requested information about bull trout dying in irrigation ditches in western Montana. Bull trout require cold, clean, and connected water, which is not found in sun-warmed irrigation ditches from which there is no escape. If we’re ever going to recover bull trout and remove them from the Endangered Species List, we have to take steps to stop needless and easily preventable fatalities, such as being stranded in irrigation ditches.
There’s a simple and effective way to keep bull trout out of irrigation ditches by installing self-cleaning fish screens at the point of diversion. These fish screens, which are in extensive use across the West, let the water through but keep bull trout and other fish out. We asked to see if the federal agency overseeing bull trout recovery was implementing these simple measures to eliminate bull trout fatalities. But since the Trump administration refused to provide the information as required by law, we had no choice but to take the matter to court to force compliance with the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The Alliance filed its request on January 24, 2019. Four months later we still haven’t received the information we requested. The Freedom of Information Act requires that the federal government turn over documents within 20 business days after citizens have asked for them. But Trump runs the federal government like his own private business, refusing to let the public see if federal agencies are complying with long-standing laws, or in this case, not complying with citizen right-to-know laws such as the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of information Act plays an essential role for Americans who want to see what the government is doing, makes the federal government transparent and accountable, and has been used to expose a wide range of government misconduct and waste. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Robbins Tire Co. that the Freedom of Information Act’s “basic purpose is to ensure an informed citizenry” which it held is “vital” to a democratic society to check corruption and hold government “accountable to the governed.”
This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. It is an American issue. It is essential for all Americans that we have a government that operates in the open, not behind closed doors. In America, everybody has to follow the law, including Trump. The government often tends to pursue the self-interests of elected officials. But whereas tyranny flourishes in the dark, democracy thrives in sunlight. We are a democracy that operates best when the government follows the law and willingly interacts with the citizenry, not when it stonewalls legitimate, legal requests for information.
The summer irrigation season is starting and there’s no time to lose in acquiring the information requested from the federal government. Likewise, there’s no valid reason to withhold information that will keep bull trout from needlessly dying in irrigation ditches.
Mike Garrity, executive director
Alliance for the Wild Rockies