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Washington, DC, Aug. 6, 2018 — The Trump administration has opened national wildlife refuges up to genetically modified crops and powerful pesticides, reversing a ban adopted under Obama, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) memo posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In 2014, the agency had banned both GM crops and neonicotinoid pesticides throughout the entire National Wildlife Refuge System citing adverse effects on pollinators and non-target wildlife.
In a memo dated August 2, 2018, Gregory Sheehan, the FWS Principal Deputy-Director, rescinded the 2014 ban effective across all 562 of the nation’s refuges and directed them to “consider the options” of GM crops and neonics subject to approval “on a case-by-case basis.”
Sheehan asserted that the move was intended to “provide adequate forage for waterfowl and migratory birds” but cited no examples of where native plants or conventional agriculture needed supplementation. Nor did he address the reasons cited by his agency for the 2014 ban, including –
- Neonic pesticides “distribute systemically in a plant and can potentially affect a broad spectrum of non-target species,” an outcome “not consistent with Service policy” on refuges;
- Transitioning “refuge land from a primarily agricultural use to restored, native habit” is both better serves refuge wildlife and reduces the refuges’ “carbon footprint”; and
- Due to the experience under previous bans on refuge GM agriculture won in lawsuits brought by PEER and other groups, FWS determined that “Refuges throughout the country successfully meet wildlife management objectives without the use of genetically modified crops…it is no longer possible to say their use is essential…”
“The claim that refuge wildlife need genetically modified soybeans cannot be made with a straight face,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, noting that the agricultural biotech industry has been lobbying the Trump administration to reverse the ban which undermines industry sales pitches that their products have no ill side-effects. “These refuges are supposed to benefit wildlife, not a corporate bottom line.”
In the lower 48, most refuges are located along the three great flyways to serve as safe layover spots for migratory birds. Many refuges allow local farmers to cultivate uplands under Cooperative Agreements which usually require that the farmer leave one-quarter of the crop for forage. Several were created specifically to protect endangered birds, such as the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge in Texas. Yet, those and other birds are known to be directly harmed when they consume neonicotinoid-coated crop seeds.
“These refuges are islands of habitat for wildlife, including vital pollinators and cherished monarch butterflies for which the use of GMOs and neonics is a death sentence,” Jenkins added, pointing out that the previous successful lawsuits against FWS on this issue prompted Sheehan to direct any refuges to consult with the Interior Solicitor’s Office before proceeding. “If this was a legitimate tool to aid wildlife, a Refuge Manager should not have to consult a lawyer.”
The FWS’ longstanding policy on Biological Integrity, Diversity and Environmental Health forbids any introduction of genetically modified organisms unless essential to accomplishing a refuge purpose. The standard for what is essential, however, has not been consistently or rigorously applied.