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Grizzly comments must be made public

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WASHINGTON, D.C.--Full comments on reintroducing the grizzly bear into portions of Idaho and Montana must be made public, a federal…

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Full comments on reintroducing the grizzly bear into portions of Idaho and Montana must be made public, a federal District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled in late June. It rejected the claims of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that disclosure of the names and addresses of commenters would violate their privacy.

The court told the agency that the “considerable public interest” in the rulemaking process and in government accountability warrants full disclosure. It rejected the agency’s claims that certain individuals had been harassed for making their views on grizzlies known. The court said that did not justify a “wholesale bar to disclosure.”

In response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request, the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 1998 told the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving natural diversity in the Rockies, that it could read public comments on a proposed rulemaking that would allow the agency to put grizzlies back into the Bitterroot ecosystem area of the two states in an effort to preserve the threatened species.

But the agency withheld names and addresses of private citizens who commented, saying that release of that information could allow them to be harassed because of their views. On appeal, the Department of the Interior FOI officer noted that it usually releases names and addresses of commenters but that their privacy interests could be triggered in “special circumstances” when controversial or sensitive issues were involved.

Calling the Fish and Wildlife Service’s objections to disclosure “remarkable,” the District Court noted that commenters had every reason to expect that their comments would be public. The court noted that 24,000 comments were voluntarily submitted and that only one commenter requested anonymity.

(Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Department of the Interior; Attorney: Eric Glitzenstein, Washington, D.C.)