Washington, DC — A lawsuit filed today in federal court against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service seeks to compel the Service to uproot genetically engineered (GE) crops from its Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. As many as 80 other national wildlife refuges across the country now growing GE crops are vulnerable to similar suits.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for Delaware 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 & Wildlife Service had illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres to be plowed over without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).
In March 2009, the same groups won a similar lawsuit against GE plantings on Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Ironically, Prime Hook has now been administratively incorporated into Bombay Hook, meaning that the same refuge management that is overseeing execution of the Prime Hook verdict is violating its tenets on Bombay Hook. In August 2009, several environmental groups led by the Center for Food Safety and PEER wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to alert him to the implications of the Prime Hook ruling and asking him to “issue a moratorium on all GE crop cultivation in National Wildlife Refuges.” Secretary Salazar has never responded.
“By definition, these refuges are to be administered to benefit wildlife, not farmers,” stated PEER Counsel Christine Erickson, noting that Fish & Wildlife Service policy explicitly forbids “genetically modified agricultural crops in refuge management unless [they] determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s).” “GE crops serve no legitimate refuge purpose, and in fact impair the objectives for which the wildlife sanctuaries were originally established.”
National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades to help prepare seed beds for native grasslands and provide food for migratory birds. In recent years, however, refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because that is only seed farmers can obtain. Today, the vast majority of crops grown on refuges are genetically engineered.
Yet farming on wildlife refuges often interferes with protection of wildlife and native grasses. Scientists also warn that GE crops can lead to increased pesticide use on refuges and can have other negative effects on birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife. In the Prime Hook case, Federal District Court Chief Judge Gregory Sleet found that “it is undisputed that farming with genetically modified crops at Prime Hook poses significant environmental risks.”
“Using genetically engineered crops designed to be used in conjunction with repeated applications of pesticides is a practice in direct opposition to the mission of the National Wildlife Refuges: to serve as safe havens for wildlife,” said Paige Tomasilli, Staff Attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “The fact that farmers can obtain no other seeds underscores the questionable business practices of companies like Monsanto that are trying to limit farmer and consumer choice in order to sell more chemical pesticides.”
“There is no question that there has been a self-serving relationship between local farmers and the refuge management over time here in Delaware, going back to when Prime Hook and Bombay Hook were first created,” commented Mark Martell , President of the Delaware Audubon Society. “Farming on the Delaware refuges has resulted in surplus profits for the farmers with no tangible economic or environmental benefit to the refuges where these lands were purchased from farmers and other private landowners for their ecological significance along the Great Eastern Flyway.” “The law on this is clear, and it is clear that the law has been ignored. It took local caretakers and friends of these important refuges to push for enforcement of these existing laws and changes to refuge management practices. The original lawsuit regarding these practices at Prime Hook is a game changer and it is our fervent hope that Bombay Hook and other refuges around the country take notice.”
If successful, the suit would enjoin any cultivation of GE crops on Bombay Hook until environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act have been completed. Meanwhile, unless practices on the refuges change, PEER and the Center for Food Safety are preparing new suits against other refuges with GE farming programs.