Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has for more than ten years illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing some 500 acres of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to be farmed, some with genetically engineered (GE) crops, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations. The groups filed suit after discovering that a top Bush administration political appointee overruled the wildlife refuge manager in allowing the gene altered crops in violation of the Service’s own policy prohibiting GE crops unless their use is “essential to accomplishing [the] refuge purpose.” [Emphasis added]
The suit filed today in U.S. District Court in Wilmington on behalf of Delaware Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Food Safety against the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and its parent agency, the Department of Interior, alleges two violations of federal law. First, FWS has failed to perform compatibility determinations required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act for farming on the Refuge. Second, FWS has failed to perform the environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act to determine the effects of allowing GE crops and associated pesticide applications on wildlife habitat.
Allowing farming within wildlife refuges interferes with the protection of the wildlife and native species that the national refuge system is designed to protect. In fact, a 150 acre Test Area at the Prime Hook Refuge was taken out of agricultural production for three years and produced a wide diversity of bird, animal and plant habitats and species diversity. However, the Refuge destroyed those habitats by allowing the Test Area to be plowed under for farming at the end of the three year period.
“Delaware Audubon believes the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is being managed and operated in violation of federal law and in a manner that is not consistent with the purposes for which the refuge was established,” said Nicholas DiPasquale, Conservation Chair of Delaware Audubon. “The objective of this lawsuit is to ensure that various uses and activities at Prime Hook are properly conducted and will achieve and maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the refuge.”
The use of genetically engineered crops at national wildlife refuges is highly controversial within the scientific community and the federal government. Scientists warn that GE crops can have negative effects on birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife, and can lead to increased use of herbicides that can harm plant species. Yet, without any consideration of the environmental effects of allowing such crops on federal refuge lands, Casey Stemler, a special assistant acting on behalf of Matt Hogan, a former Safari Club lobbyist now serving as the acting Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife & Parks, overrode the Refuge manager and ordered that planting of GE crops proceed at the Prime Hook Refuge.
“These refuges are supposed to be for wildlife, not chemical companies or agribusiness,” stated Gene Hocutt, the head of PEER’s Refuge Keeper program and a former long-time refuge manager. “Plowing up native grasses for mutated row crops constitutes biological malpractice of the highest order and a betrayal of the purposes of the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
As many as 100,000 acres of refuge lands are currently under cultivation in GE crops, according to agency documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act. There are 544 federal wildlife refuges located in all 50 states.
“Genetically engineered crops have no place in our National Wildlife Refuges. These gene-spliced crops are being planted to the detriment of wildlife and their habitat,” commented Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Food Safety. “The Bush Administration is flouting the law and ignoring environmental risks.”
The complaint asks for an injunction against any further commercial activity on the Prime Hook Refuge until the required determinations and studies are done to show that agricultural operations are compatible with wildlife needs. Attorney Vivian Houghton working for the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center filed the complaint.
The Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center is a not-for-profit environmental law firm that provides legal services to public interest organizations in environmental matters. The Center aims to ensure that environmental requirements are met, and that legislation and regulations are properly implemented by the responsible federal, state and local agencies.