Wolf Advocate Wins FOIA Lawsuit Against Michigan DNR

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The State of Michigan, Court of Claims, recently ruled that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) improperly withheld the locations of wolf-related incidents that occurred in 2016 and ordered the agency to release the Section, Township and Range giving the locations for those conflicts.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit brought by Nancy Warren, of Ewen, represented by Rebecca Millican of Olson, Bzdok& Howard, Traverse City.

On May 27, 2016, Warren submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to MDNR, seeking all wolf depredation data including livestock verified to have been killed or reported missing, the location of the events and payments issued to compensate producers for those losses.  Finally, the request asked for a copy of “reports and or documentation for any non-lethal measures implemented in Ontonagon County in an attempt to reduce wolf conflicts.”

MDNR partially denied the request asserting that releasing the location of the conflicts would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.  The Court disagreed stating that the redacted information, Township, Range, and Section information of wolf-related incidents is not “Information of a personal nature.”  The Court further stated that the names of individuals making depredation reports are not exempt.

MDNR certified there “are no reports or documentation” pertaining to Ms Warren’s request for non-lethal measures implemented in Ontonagon County and the Court accepted their affidavit stating,“The court the Court cannot compel defendant to produce under FOIA that which does not exist.”

In compliance with the Court order, MDNR released the unredacted information which confirmed Warren’s suspicions that of the 21 verified wolf/livestock events in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during 2016, 81% were at one Ontonagon County farm and this producer received 86% of all depredation payments. 

The Michigan Wolf Management Plan states,“Lethal control of wolves will not be authorized when problems could be addressed through non-lethal methods.” 

Wolves in Michigan are currently federally protected and can only be killed in defense of human life, however, upon delisting, MDNR will have the authority to kill problem wolves.  

“How can MDNR justify killing wolves, authorize producers or utilize hunters to kill wolves when MDNR fails to maintain records of non-lethal measures used?This is very problematic” said Warren. 

In 2013, the Natural Resources Commission approved a wolf hunt which MDNR purported was needed to address wolf conflicts.  However, an Mlive investigation found most of the incidents had occurred at one farm where dead cattle were left afield, drawing wolves. The producer subsequently pleaded guilty to animal neglect following the death of two guard donkeys provided to him by MDNR and he moved his livestock from the farm.

“The court made clear that under FOIA persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and that the exemptions listed in the act are to be narrowly construed”, said Attorney Millican. 

The Court also found it appropriate to award a portion of attorneys’ fees, costs, and disbursements.

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