(Beyond Pesticides, March 27, 2009) A federal court has ordered the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to stop planting genetically engineered (GE) crops on its Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. While the ruling is limited to Prime Hook, the lawsuit may serve as a model for similar litigation at more than 80 other national wildlife refuges now growing GE crops across the country.
Filed in April 2006 by the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic on behalf of Delaware Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Food Safety, the federal suit charges that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres to be plowed over without required environmental review and contrary to FWS’ own policy prohibiting GE crops.
“It is unfortunate that we had to file suit against the Service to get it to comply with its own policies,” commented Nicholas DiPasquale, Conservation Chair for Delaware Audubon. “It is clear that this Refuge Manager had abdicated control over farming operations at Prime Hook just as it is also clear that farming practices have been extremely destructive to the forested uplands at the refuge.”
The groups filed suit after discovering that a top Bush administration political appointee overruled the wildlife refuge manager in allowing the gene altered crops. Three months after the groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, the Fish & Wildlife Service loosened its policies to facilitate greater use of GM crops on all refuges.
“These farming programs chew up the habitat that is supposed to provide refuge for wildlife,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “Genetically modified crops serve no legitimate refuge purpose and have no business being grown there.”
Farming within wildlife refuges often interferes with the protection of the wildlife and the native grasses that the national refuge system is designed to protect. Scientists also warn the use of genetically engineered crops can lead to increased pesticide use on refuges and can have additional negative effects on birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife. In this case, Federal District Court Chief Judge Gregory Sleet concluded that “it is undisputed that farming with genetically modified crops at Prime Hook poses significant environmental risks.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be planting genetically engineered crops on National Wildlife Refuges,” said Kevin Golden, Staff Attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “Prime Hook is the tip of the iceberg of a nation-wide problem which needs to be addressed at refuges around the country.” The groups plan to pursue further action. According to Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, “If we don’t see movement, our litigation plan is to select a refuge in each region of the country and file similar suits.”
The court ruling blocks future agricultural operations on Prime Hook until compatibility determinations required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act have been completed.
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