WASHINGTON— More than 20 groups urged the Biden administration on Friday to release wildlife import and export data hidden from the public since 2015. The data documents the millions of plants and animals that enter and leave the United States each year for the exotic pet trade, hunting trophies, medicinal products, fashion, décor and more. It is a unique and invaluable source of information for conservationists, scientists and members of the media alike.
The letter from conservation and animal welfare groups, representing millions of members of the public, urges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to finally make public the data compiled in the Law Enforcement Management Information System, or LEMIS, database. The Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Defenders of Wildlife were among the organizations that signed onto the letter.
LEMIS data is vital for biodiversity conservation, as it documents wildlife and plants and their parts and products crossing U.S. borders. Given the United States’ role as a major global wildlife importer, the data helps conservationists identify species at risk from trade and provides key information on illegal trade, disease risk, invasive species and U.S. compliance with national and international laws.
“The United States is a huge hub for the wildlife trade, and the Biden administration must release this data about the animals and plants crossing our borders,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For more than five years the public has been denied this crucial information. Trade and other forms of exploitation are driving biodiversity loss, and this data is key to fighting the extinction crisis and its symptoms, including pandemics. Without it, we’re fighting in the dark.”
For over a decade the LEMIS data was released under the Freedom of Information Act to the public including scientists, journalists and non-governmental organizations. Then, around 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abruptly reversed course, withholding some data as allegedly confidential commercial information. After the agency started redacting the information, it stopped responding to many FOIA requests for LEMIS data altogether.
“LEMIS data is an unparalleled treasure trove of information in our fight against destructive trophy hunting and the unsustainable commercial trade in live animals and animal parts. The public has a legal right to this information,” said Laura Smythe, staff attorney at the Humane Society of the United States, speaking on behalf of the Humane Society family of organizations. “This is the Biden administration’s chance to get government transparency back on track. The Fish and Wildlife Service must cease withholding this resource from those who rely on it for their advocacy and work.”
Earlier this year, Humane Society International won a lawsuit for the release of LEMIS data, when a federal judge declared that LEMIS data could not legally be withheld as confidential commercial information. The decision followed an earlier ruling obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity that ordered release of most LEMIS data.
The Service collects data from importing and exporting companies and set June 11 as a deadline for them to object to release of the data. The deadline prompted conservation and animal welfare groups to submit a letter urging the release of the data in full given a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the basic but critical nature of the information.
“We can’t manage what we don’t measure,” said Alejandra Goyenechea, senior international counsel at Defenders of Wildlife. “With more than 1 million species at risk of extinction globally, we can’t afford for this data to remain hidden any longer. 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.”
The U.S. imports millions of wildlife and plant parts each year from around the globe. Previous releases of the data revealed birds, fish, amphibians and turtles destined for the pet trade, python-skin boots and fur coats for the fashion industry, and corals, orchids and shells used for home décor. Large numbers of lions, leopards and other animals killed as hunting trophies, as well as primates and hamsters destined for medical research, were also documented.