Truth, one of “The Four Sisters,” adorns the Wyoming Capitol Rotunda along with Courage, Justice and Hope. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

The public has the right to know about protected Colorado wolves killed legally by hunters when they cross the Wyoming state border, but officials here are blatantly using a 2012 state law as a feeble excuse to keep all information secret.


WyoFile’s recent reporting on the controversial practice is just one example of how some government agencies abuse the public records system to keep us in the dark about vital matters. Cases involving a wrongful death lawsuit settlement, students, juvenile inmates and even alleged sex crimes are other examples of how Wyoming public officials have attempted to hide facts under the guise of protecting personal privacy.

In the wolf-killing controversy, Wyoming residents aren’t the only ones whose rights under the state’s Public Records Act have been clearly violated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Incredibly, even Colorado officials who manage wildlife haven’t been provided any details of the alleged incidents by their Wyoming counterparts.

Bruce Moats, a former journalist and recently retired Cheyenne attorney who spent more than 40 years fighting for transparency in government, said there’s a reason why authorities in power withhold information: They want people to think and act in a certain way.

“More specifically, they don’t want you to think in a certain way or act in a certain way, because they fear if you have that information, that’s what you’re going to do,” Moats said.

Often agencies contend they withhold information to protect someone’s identity, but that’s a misguided argument used to brush aside public records laws. A flat-out rejection of a records request isn’t necessary to protect someone’s identity when records custodians can instead redact identifying information and still release most of the details.

In the legal world, they call this the “least restrictive means.” Put simply, the least impactful approach should be taken when a compelling government interest collides with the public’s right to know. Instead of the wholesale denial of information, officials are supposed to release as much as feasible.

But that’s not what happened in the wolf-killing and other cases.

The Game and Fish Department said an 11-year-old state law protecting wolf hunters’ identities was meant to keep people from harassing and threatening them. The department releases only the aggregate number of wolves killed in the entire 53-million-acre area “predator zone,” which covers 85% of Wyoming.

But even if the state disclosed information about wolf kills by each county, it would still likely be difficult to determine who are the shooters. In other words, the government can protect individual privacy rights and the public’s right to know. Moats said the Public Records Act and legal precedent established agencies have an obligation to segregate material, redact exempt material — including names — “and turn over the rest.”

Albany County has consistently denied requests from WyoFile for public documents related to a 2022 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit in the fatal shooting of Robbie Ramirez by a then-deputy sheriff.

The county maintains the settlement agreement contains information that is “highly confidential and sensitive.” But a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling suggests that such agreements are public records, prompting WyoFile to resubmit its requests on Aug. 22. In response, Albany County is still looking for ways to block access. 

This attack on transparency is nothing new. Back in 2018, the Department of Family Services refused to say if it investigated the Natrona County Juvenile Detention Center, in the wake of allegations a former staff member sexually assaulted a female inmate. DFS has the power to examine if any regulations related to running such facilities were violated.

But even after a criminal case confirmed the sexual assault, DFS cited confidentiality of child abuse and neglect cases and still wouldn’t confirm the investigation. That response inspired no confidence that the agency was doing its job.

A decade earlier, things were different. When another company operated the detention center, DFS responded immediately to an unreported sexual assault found during an investigation and released it to the public, along with updates.

It doesn’t make sense how disclosing an investigation would jeopardize an abused child’s privacy, but DFS raised the same concern when denying WyoFile’s requests for information about reports of abuse at the Wyoming Boys’ School.  

To Moats, DFS’s unwillingness to confirm investigations is another example of the national trend that “government entities are hiding behind individual privacy.”

In another 2018 case, the Natrona County School District confirmed it investigated what it called an isolated incident of “extreme bullying.”

However, the ages, grade levels, number of students involved and even such basics as what happened and when were withheld to protect student privacy, according to the district. Parents and the general public have a right to know about such incidents so they can judge if the school took the proper action to ensure kids’ safety.

“If you shut off information to the newspaper, that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to learn about it,” Moats said. “Hiding stuff just leads to rumors and misinformation, and that causes a lot of problems.”

Reporting on Public Records Act and open meetings law violations is one of the most important jobs for all journalists. I’ve been fortunate to work for Wyoming news organizations that have consistently gone to the mat to defend the public’s right to know, usually at considerable expense.

Moats recalled during his career, there were times when government attorneys either urged unwilling boards and councils to release information or told them they had to do it.

“I’ve seen it turn back again now,” he said. “Instead of finding a way to release information, they’re finding a way not to.”

What changed? Moats said divisive national politics is a factor, plus amendments to the Wyoming Public Records Act initiated because of how much public records requests were costing agencies.

In one of Moats’ few defeats at the Wyoming Supreme Court, the justices ruled 3-2 that agencies may charge search and retrieval fees for electronic records.

“Some are still charging thousands of dollars and asking for advance payment,” he said. “It creates an impediment to access of documents that are indisputably public.”

Such expenses are a tremendous burden on the media, especially because news outlets have much less advertising revenue to spend on court cases and documents, not to mention fewer reporters. 

“But for individual citizens, it can just be a way to deny [their requests],” Moats said. “[Agencies] know people can’t afford to hire an attorney.”

He said the Legislature severely restricted the Public Records Act by setting a 30-day deadline to respond to records requests. “Often we’re looking at a public record because there’s something going on then that people want to make a decision about,” Moats said. “That was a big change.”

Moats stressed the public can no longer expect the media to take the lead in fighting for every public records case.

“People have to rise up; the time is now,” the attorney said. “Stand up for yourself, and support your local media organizations and reporters who are out there covering meetings. We don’t have as many fact-finders out there as we used to, and we’ve never had enough.”

With fewer professionals to take on public records cases, Wyoming owes a debt of gratitude to two retired Wyoming attorneys who took on the challenge of obtaining public records from the Wyoming Department of Education.

Rodger McDaniel and George Powers last spring sued WDE, former interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder and a staff member for failing to provide public information about the planning of a far-right “Stop the Sexualization of Our Children” rally Schroeder hosted in Cheyenne last fall.

Last month, Laramie County Judge Steven Sharpe said there were acts of “bad faith” by the department when it didn’t respond to the requests.

But that paled in comparison to what Schroeder admitted in court last Thursday. Testifying under oath, Schroeder said he lied to the press when he said public money wasn’t spent on the political event.

Moats praised Powers and McDaniel for their commitment to finding the truth. 

“Where the department denied having records on a number of occasions, it turned out they did have them,” he said. “That’s the problem when you don’t know what’s there. Attorneys are experienced at probing and finding the soft spots.

“But most people don’t have that,” Moats said. “So agencies just say ‘that’s all we’ve got,’ then that’s the end of it.”

Hopefully, the Schroeder case will establish a legal precedent for public records requests in Wyoming, and that will help our future citizen fact-finders. As our champions of government transparency like Moats retire, we need a new generation to lead the effort.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Public officials often believe they are above the public and should not respond openly and truthfully to the public. There should be consequences to a public official that denies the public the records that actually belong to the people. This is the big flaw in the public records act.

    Consider the real example that played out in 2018.

    State Auditor Cynthia Cloud repeatedly denied repeated requests for state checkbook data for years. In April 2018, she agreed to provide the data to American Transparency ( and Equality State Taxpayers… for a fee of $8900. She then proceeded to drag out the process and failed to provide the data timely. A lawsuit was filed and the Attorney Generals office began a defense for Auditor Cloud. Lawsuits are expensive, both for the public and for the nonprofits seeking government expenditure data. In the end, Auditor Cloud failed to produce all the data promised by the time she left office.

    The next State Auditor, Kristi Racines produced the entire request quickly and refunded the fee stating that the cost was minimal. Indeed, Auditor Racines then went even further and created a website with rolling 5 years of checkbook data available to anyone who can type “” into an internet browser. She then went even further and discloses how little it cost to create the website and estimates the savings to the state every budget session in appropriations committee and sometimes in the general session as well.

    There were no consequences to Auditor Cloud or her deputy. Sadly the nonprofits that had to pay a fee of $8900 and then engage an attorney were wronged by the SAO under Cloud. Yes, the fee was returned about nine months later. But the fee was simply a means for Cloud to try to block the request.

    Kudos to Auditor Racines.

    In the case of the WDE, there should be consequences. Perhaps the current Superintendent should make that happen. “Bad faith” by the department should not be rewarded. Elected officials can only be held accountable by votes. Public officials can be held accountable by the Senate by withholding confirmation of the public official. Or by the elected official taking action to restore the pubic trust in making public records public and also holding the official who failed to produce accountable.

    In the current cases, the public should be talking to their Senator and Governor Gordon. They should also talk to their representatives and senators to find a lawful means of holding officials accountable when they refuse the public requests for public data. The last iteration of the public records act, in 2018, had an original draft with a potential felony for officials denying records to the public. That might have been a bit much, and the provision was removed in the process. But NO consequences might be too little.

    Currently we have to rely on the integrity of the elected officials that are above the public official. On the state level, there are just five.

    I applaud those who continue to fight for transparency. Oddly, I have to agree with Drakes take on this one, we need a lot more people questioning the government and asking for the public records, paid for by the public. The younger the better.

  2. In my opinion there should not be any wolves in the state of Wyoming or even in existence. You wolf lovers need to observe a pack of wolves feeding on elk, deer, cattle or sheep. They don’t kill there prey, they will ham string or rip open there flank exposing their intestines & somewhere in the gorging process the prey will expire. Yes they eat/devour there prey alive, sicking & disgusting & don’t say they prey only on the sick & weak, total lie/BS. I’ve tried very hard to see any positive value & can’t find any contribution.

  3. So the marxist left can dox the hunters doing the right thing? It’d be well to classify the leftists the same as the wolves.

    1. Weird flex, bro. But go off, I guess?
      I served more than a decade in the military to protect your right to free speech, and you use it to suggest literally hunting other human beings for having a different opinion than you? Wow. Probably not the point you were hoping to make.

      1. That was exactly the point Mr Burkhart was trying to make. It’s unfortunate that different opinions cause the fringe so much angst and anxiety that they feel violence is necessary.

      2. To the point, when government agencies are not transparent, the citizenship has every right to question what the government is hiding. Agree that personal information should be concealed, but general explanation and disclosure would benefit all.

    2. It’s obvious, Mr. Burkhart, that you’re missing the point, which is this complete lack of transparency by certain Wyoming government entities. To the detriment of all, I should add.

    3. Jay, the right uses the very same process to find out which doctors performed abortions on which women when it was LEGAL to do that. That info WAS protected by a Federal law. General information about hunters killing wolves in aggregate is NOT protected by any statutes. How many wolves, which counties, when, and where. Only the personal information IS protected as it well should be. Try not to be hypocritical, and pay attention to what was asked actually rather than focus on what you personally project the bad guys might want. Hang in there.