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HELENA — Members of three environmental groups have accused the Montana Department of Livestock of illegally denying them access to public records. The department dismisses the allegations.

“They’ve basically taken a total gag order against us,” said Jim Coefield of the Ecology Center. Coefield said the Ecology Center, Buffalo Field Campaign and Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers have made repeated written requests to the department, beginning at the end of March, and have yet to receive any of the public records they requested.

The Montana Constitution guarantees citizens’ right to examine public documents, except in cases “in which the demand of individual privacy clearly outweighs the merits of public disclosure.” The state’s so-called “sunshine” laws clarify that citizens are entitled to inspect and copy public documents, unless the documents relate to personnel and some other private issues.

But department attorney Bernard Jacobs said the groups, which in May filed their intent to sue the department over the use of helicopters for hazing bison near Yellowstone National Park, now need to go through legal channels to get the information they want.

“We’re absolutely not denying them access to anything; we’re just saying: ‘Let’s just use the civil process,’” Jacobs said.

In a letter to the groups’ attorney, Jacobs wrote: “It is (the department’s) position that the lawsuit which you filed on behalf of the Buffalo Field Campaign, Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers, and the Ecology Center modifies the ‘right to know’ relationship which would otherwise exist between individuals who are members of your client organizations and DOL.”

“He is fundamentally mistaken in that belief,” said the groups’ attorney, Brenda Lindlief Hall of the Helena firm Reynolds, Motl and Sherwood. “This is a public entity; this is a public agency. … They certainly have a right to that information, regardless of the filing of a federal lawsuit.”

Laura Vachowski, an attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said she knows of nothing in the law that says people give up their right to examine public documents through normal means if they are suing a state agency. She said any documents that are part of the public record should be available to anyone who asks during normal business hours. State agencies may charge a copying fee.

Coefield said members of his group have in the past requested documents both in person and through mail and fax without trouble. But the information the Ecology Center first requested March 26 — and again, through Hall, June 19 — has not been granted.

“Their requests were pretty broad; that was a problem to begin with,” Jacobs said. Some of the information the groups wanted may have been private — including names and addresses of staff members, Jacobs said. He also said some of the documents are already freely available on the Web, and some may be available through other agencies.

“We were working on them,” before the lawsuit, Jacobs said. He added later: “It just takes a lot of time to get that together, and I’m very reluctant to provide information to them I’m not certain is complete.”

Department spokeswoman Karen Cooper said some of the requests were for “any and all” information about the department’s bison activities.

“To say, any and all, everything concerning any of the bison issues, is so expansive that you cannot pull it together in any reasonable amount of time,” Cooper said.

Without the suit, however, the department would have at least partially fulfilled the groups’ requests by now, Jacobs said. The department will now rely on the legal process of discovery in giving any information about bison hazing to the groups, he added.

“It’s a much more controlled environment for the exchange of information,” he said. “It’s absolutely incorrect for them to say we’re denying them information.”

Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign disagrees.

“We’re hoping that the state will comply, and they will give us the information that we have a right to under state law,” Brister said.

Brister and Coefield both said their organizations are considering filing a complaint with the attorney general about what they see as an infringement of their legally guaranteed right to know.