Over twenty animal welfare and wildlife protection organizations requested the government release wildlife import and export records to the public last Friday.
The organizations, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society International, and Defenders of Wildlife, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the review process for releasing data stored in the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS). The letter states that the LEMIS data is vital to the organizations’ work, yet it hasn’t been released since 2015.
“The LEMIS database contains the most basic and essential data on all wildlife species, parts, and products in trade and how they are imported or exported from the U.S. This data is crucial for protecting wildlife and plants from exploitation through trade, ensuring legal obligations are met by the Service as well as by importers and exporters, aiding in scientific research, influencing policy and law enforcement, and curtailing the spread of disease,” the letter states.
The requested data is being withheld under Exemption 4 of the FOIA, which can be used to withhold commercial or financial information that is considered confidential. To be exempt from disclosure, the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that information must be “‘both customarily and actually treated as private’” and may also need to be submitted with an assurance of privacy, the letter states. However, the organizations claim that because LEMIS data was released publicly for over a decade it can’t be considered private. In addition, no assurance of privacy is given to data submitters.
“Indeed, the only ‘assurance’ given is an assurance of disclosure. The form from which most of the LEMIS data is collected…contains several notices to submitters. It specifies that: ‘submission of the requested information is required to enforce any regulations that pertain to the wildlife contained in the shipment,’ the data is used as an ‘enforcement tool and management aid,’ and ‘[i]nformation collected is also used to respond to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act,” the letter states.
Earlier this year, the Humane Society International won a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service for the release of LEMIS data. The judge ruled that submitters of LEMIS data don’t “‘customarily and actually treat the information as private’” and, therefore, the LEMIS data couldn’t be withheld under Exemption 4, according to the letter. A press release by the Center of Biological Diversity states that this decision followed an earlier ruling obtained by the organization that ordered the release of most LEMIS data.
‘“With more than 1 million species at risk of extinction globally, we can’t afford for this data to remain hidden any longer,’” Alejandra Goyenechea, senior international counsel at Defenders of Wildlife, said in the press release. ‘“Publicizing the data is a simple step the Biden administration can take to help combat the extinction crisis and empower organizations like Defenders to measure biodiversity loss and identify urgently-needed conservation measures.’”