Did you know that United States permits the planting of genetically engineered crops in the nation’s protected wildlife refuges?
As a result of recent lawsuits brought by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Beyond Pesticides, the practice has stopped in some wildlife refuges. In their latest challenge, the environmental groups asked the court to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency in charge of the nation’s wildlife refuges, to stop allowing GMO planting on protected public land in the Southeastern United States. While the parties wait for the court’s ruling, the agency voluntarily decided to halt planting GMOs there until it performs the required environmental analysis.
National Wildlife Refuge System
The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by FWS, is a network of more than 150 million acres of priceless wild lands and waters set aside for conservation and management for the benefit of all Americans.
Since Florida’s Pelican Island was designated as the first wildlife refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, the Refuge System has grown to encompass nearly 600 wildlife habitats and wetland areas spread out across nine vast geographic regions. The mission of the FWS is to “restore, protect, and manage habitat for America’s wildlife.” Wildlife refuges provide habitat for hundreds of threatened or endangered plants and animals, and provide “millions of migrating birds … stepping stones to rest as they fly thousands of miles south for the winter and return north for the summer.
The Southeast Region or Region 4 of this system “is home to a rich diversity of natural resources,” covers over 430,000 square miles, is spread across 10 states and stretches from the “Appalachian Mountains south to the Caribbean Islands, and west to the Ozarks, including the southern half of the Mississippi River Basin.” There are 128 national wildlife refuges in the Southeast (including 67 coastal refuges), encompassing 4 million acres of protected refuge land, and 322 listed endangered species.
Farming in the Southeast Region
Since at least the 1930’s, the Southeast refuges have incorporated agricultural production in refuge management. Twenty-five refuges and refuge complexes in the Region allow farming on refuge lands through cooperative farming agreements between the refuges and individual farmers. Under these agreements farmers plant cash crops (typically corn, soy or rice) on refuge land and harvest the majority of them, 75% of planted acres, while leaving a small portion as an unharvested food source for migratory waterfowl and wildlife, 25% of planted acres. (Center For Food Safety, et al., Motion For Summary Judgment, Feb. 10, 2012).
FWS is legally authorized to permit any use of any area within the National Wildlife Refuge System as long as the agency determines that such uses are “compatible with the major purposes for which such areas were established.” According to plaintiffs’ court documents, all refuges have written compatibility determinations to determine if farming in general is compatible with the major purposes of each refuge. However, “[t]hese compatibility determinations do not address the specific use of genetically engineered crops,” despite the fact that planting by the farmers of genetically engineered crops occurs in and impacts sensitive refuge habitats and numerous threatened and endangered species. FWS’ documents reveal that GMOs were planted on 44,317 acres of refuge lands across 25 refuges in the Southeast Region since 2003.
Another Lawsuit to Stop GMOs in Wildlife Habitats
The environmental groups argument in the lawsuit rests on FWS own policy which recognizes that “biological integrity, diversity and environmental health are critical components of wildlife conservation.” Indeed, say plaintiffs, the agency explicitly prohibits the use of genetically engineered crops unless these crops are “essential” for accomplishing refuge purposes. According to FWS’ own materials:
We do not allow refuge uses or management practices that result in the maintenance of non-native plant communities unless we determine there is no feasible alternative for accomplishing refuge purpose(s). … We do not use genetically modified organisms in refuge management unless we determine their use is essential to accomplishing.
Despite this internal policy and despite the fact that GMOs may have a significant impact on the quality of the environment in Region 4 refuges, FWS failed to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), just as it failed to make written compatibility determinations. An EIS is “a detailed written statement” which comprehensively discloses and analyzes potential environmental impacts of proposed government action.
The lawsuit in the Southeastern region is the third in a series of lawsuits filed by the environmental watchdogs seeking to protect the nation’s wildlife refuges from FWS’ practice of permitting the planting of genetically engineered crops. In 2009 and 2010, the groups successfully challenged approval of GMO plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware – Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges – which forced FWS to end GMO planting in the entire 12-state Northeast Region, until and unless a NEPA analysis was conducted.
In the current lawsuit, plaintiffs argue that,
FWS hastily prepared a six-page Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), summarily adopting eighty-nine NEPA documents prepared by a different agency, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). FWS posted this FONSI at the Southeast refuges growing genetically engineered crops on November 21, 2010, signing the document into effect 30 days later.
Relying on USDA determinations, argued plaintiffs, is insufficient to meet FWS’ federal law requirements because “[c]ourts have long established that one agency cannot solely rely on another agency to fulfill its own NEPA obligations.” FWS conduct of simply posting its decision to start planting GMOs in Region 4 refuges without notifying the public and giving it an opportunity to comment is also in violation of NEPA.
For its part, the FWS responded to environmental groups’ court filings by side-stepping the substantive issues and instead asking the court to dismiss the case based on the agency’s recent decision to suspend GMO planting. FWS stated in its response papers that,
the actions that Plaintiffs challenge, specifically cooperative farming practices and farming with genetically modified crops (“GMCs”), will no longer be allowed after the end of the 2012 growing season until Region 4 completes appropriate environmental analysis under NEPA and a compatibility determination. Therefore, Plaintiffs’ claims are now moot.
Now the court must determine whether this response is sufficient. A decision in the Southeast Region case is expected in a couple of weeks.
“Refuges are supposed to be for wildlife, not expanding Monsanto’s pesticide intensive, genetically engineered crops,” said Paige Tomaselli, Staff Attorney with the Center for Food Safety, in a press release. “As FWS’s most recent filing admits, what they have done is unlawful and must be halted as soon as possible.”
Ms. Tomaselli told GMO Journal that plaintiffs have already filed another lawsuit challenging the planting of GMOs in the the Midwest Region, Region 3, of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and court motions will be filed in that case in mid-May.
Photo shows a common sight of ducks mid-flight at Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, taken by Joseph McGowan, USFWS.