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Daily News Blog

30
Mar

Animals in Wildlife Sanctuaries at Greater Risk of Pesticide Exposure from Internal Agricultural Practices

(Beyond Pesticides, March 30, 2022) An article by the Audubon Society covers ongoing advocacy to end pesticide spraying in wildlife refuges. Wildlife refuges act as a sanctuary, providing habitat and protection essential for the survival and recovery of species nationwide. However, portions of the wildlife sanctuary can have agricultural uses, allowing farmers to cultivate crops on various acres, subsequently applying pesticides. Pesticide spraying in or around wildlife refuges threatens the survivability and recovery of species that inhabit the area. Moreover, many of these pesticides are highly toxic to human and animal health. Analyses like these are significant, especially since the globe is currently going through the Holocene Extinction, Earth’s 6th mass extinction, with one million species of plants and animals at risk. With the increasing rate of biodiversity loss, advocates say it is essential for government agencies to enforce policies that eliminate pesticide use in wildlife refuges. Ending pesticide applications in sanctuaries can protect the well-being of animals, humans, and the ecosystem. Hannah Connor, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), notes, “It’s not a huge economic driver of the refuge system, and it is truly problematic in terms of fulfilling its mission and goals[…]. That just means it should be a no-brainer to be able to look at what significant harms could befall wildlife from these practices on wildlife refuges and say: No more.”

To support the end of pesticide use in wildlife refuges, advocates refer to results from the Center for Biological (CBD) 2018 report, No Refuge. Pesticide use data obtained from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) public records via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) finds a 34 percent increase in pesticide use in commercial agriculture on national wildlife refuges. Many of these pesticides are highly toxic, with farmland in wildlife refuges experiencing an over 70% higher level of dangerous pesticide inputs. These pesticides include dicamba2,4-Dglyphosate, and paraquat, which are highly toxic to fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other animals—causing everything from birth and reproductive defects to cancer.

The U.S. has 568 national wildlife refuges—from forests and wetlands to various waterways—all of which protect thousands of species, including over 200 endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) oversees refuge management and permits private farming on refuges to help prepare seedbeds to increase seed germination for native habitats and provide food for migratory birds and other species. However, the recent rise of industrial-scale commercial farming is now commonplace in wildlife refuges, exposing these sensitive habitats and their wildlife dependents to highly toxic pesticides that jeopardize abiding health.

The impact of pesticides on wildlife—including mammals, bees and other pollinators, fish and other aquatic organisms, birds, and the biota within the soil—is extensive. Several studies document how exposure to these toxic chemicals can decrease health and survivability in a wide range of species. There are policies in place to protect wildlife from harm, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which protects ecosystems on which threatened and endangered species depend. However, a 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences detected shortcomings in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) evaluation and analysis of pesticides on endangered species, with the agency regularly disregarding the ESA’s requirement to confer with federal wildlife agencies on how to take precaution to protect threatened and endangered species from pesticide harms. Therefore, EPA, and other federal government agencies, including FWS, reformed the pesticide review process to meet the pesticide approval requirements for the ESA. 

Another concern for wildlife refuges involves crops genetically engineered (GE) to tolerate pesticide exposure. In 2012, Beyond Pesticides and other environmental groups, led by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Center for Food Safety (CFS), won a court battle to halt genetically engineered crops and related herbicide-tolerant herbicides on wildlife refuges in the southeast. This led to a grassroots campaign and public pressure from advocates and environmental groups, resulting in FWS’s decision to adopt a national phase-out of GE crops and ban neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticide use on national wildlife refuges. However, in 2018, FWS reversed the prohibition via a memorandum, which allows the refuge system to make decisions on GE crop and pesticide use on a case-by-case basis. GE crops perpetuate the use of harmful pesticides as many of these crops are resistant to the pesticides used on them, forcing farmers to use more chemicals to treat persistent pest issues.

This article highlights previous concerns of improper pesticide practices on farms in wildlife refuges. Specific to Key Cave, refuge biologist William Gates claimed farming within the refuge violated refuge-management law. Moreover, pesticides approved for use in wildlife sanctuaries lack proper buffers, including strips of vegetation to mitigate run-off into groundwater. Groundwater contamination in Key Cave is a major issue, threatening fauna, from birds to fish. Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) routinely finds widespread pesticide contamination of surface waters throughout the U.S. waterways (i.e., river, streams, surface/groundwater. Scientists warn that pesticides pose a direct threat to both insect and non-insect wildlife that may absorb chemical vapors through respiration, dermal (skin contact),or orally via food.

However, Key Cave is not the only refuge area of concern as farmers spray over 363,000 refuge acres with pesticides, many of which are highly toxic. The five national wildlife refuges complexes with the most contamination from agricultural pesticide applications include the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex (California and Oregon), Central Arkansas Refuges Complex (Arkansas), Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Mississippi), West Tennessee Refuge Complex (Tennessee), and Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Tennessee). Although the FWS allows private farmers to use refuge areas for crops, 20 percent must remain unharvested. However, pesticide residues can remain on these crops, exposing migrating birds, pollinators, and other wildlife to chemical effects. Pesticide use in wildlife refuges is an ongoing issue as a federal judge dismissed an environmental lawsuit seeking to reinstate an FWS rule banning the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, genetically engineered (GE) crops, and adopted a precautionary approach to pest management.

According to a former refuge manager interviewed by Audubon, refuge officials knew little about pesticide application and the number of chemicals used in sanctuaries. Many farmers failed to implement various requirements, like buffers, to prevent waterway contamination. Thus, the anonymous refuge manager cautions, “The regional biologist told me that it was highly unusual for people to take this process very seriously[…]. There were many, many holes in the system.”

Environmental organizations CFS and CBD express concerns as, “[t]he use of harmful agricultural pesticides to grow commercial row crops such as corn and soybeans on national wildlife refuges—the only public lands where wildlife must come first—defeats the objectives of the Refuge System and poses a significant threat to the species that rely on these refuges and the habitats that they provide.”

Pesticide use should be phased out and ultimately eliminated to protect the nation’s and world’s wildlife and reduce the number of dangerous pesticides exposed to species in wildlife refuges. Beyond Pesticides has long fought against GE crops and pesticide use on refuges and advocated for federal regulations that consider all potential impacts of pesticides to ecosystems and organisms. There are blind spots that limit our ability to adopt widespread change that improves ecosystem health. Thus, it is vital to understand how pesticides can exacerbate biodiversity loss in wildlife sanctuaries, especially due to the increasing amount of dangerous pesticide use in these areas. However, advocating for local and state pesticide reform policies can protect wildlife from pesticide contamination. For more information on pesticide impacts on wildlife, visit Beyond Pesticides’ wildlife page.

Furthermore, buyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides on crops located in wildlife refuges. Organic agriculture has many health and environmental benefits that eliminate the need for chemical-intensive agricultural practices in these sanctuaries. For more information on how organic is the right choice, see Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Audubon Society

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