In the ongoing, confusing court battles over process involving genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crops, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has run up one white flag.


A unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish & Wildlife has agreed to stop planting GE crops on its refuges in a dozen northeastern states.

That ends a federal lawsuit brought against the agency by activist groups that oppose genetically altered crops.  The federal government will continue to use GM crops on as many as 75 refuges in other areas the country.   More lawsuits are possible.

The settled lawsuit was in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, filed against the federal government 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.

It claimed the Fish & Wildlife Service had illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres on its Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware to be planted with GM crops without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In settling the suit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service promised to revoke any authorization for further GE agriculture at Bombay Hook and four other refuges with GE crops–the Rappahannock River Valley Refuge and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge, Montezuma Refuge in New York and Blackwater Refuge of Maryland–unless and until an appropriate NEPA analysis is completed, a condition that has yet to be met for GE agriculture on a National Wildlife Refuge.

“For Delawareans, this is a victory for the protection of vital public resources in our state,” said Mark Martell, president of the Delaware Audubon Society.  “Our aim was to end illegal and destructive agriculture on the Delaware refuges but we are delighted to have this victory extended to other refuges along the Great Eastern Flyway.”

In March 2009, the same groups won a similar lawsuit against GE plantings on Delaware’s Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  In August 2009, several environmental groups led by the Center for Food Safety and PEER wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to alert him to the implications of the Prime Hook ruling, asking him to issue a moratorium on all GE crop cultivation in National Wildlife Refuges.   But Secretary Salazar never responded to the letter and his agency, which oversees the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was unwilling to extend the Bombay Hook settlement beyond the Northeast region.

“Planting genetically engineered crops on wildlife refuges is resource management malpractice,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, 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, thus refuge officials must resort to outright fictions to claim these crops benefit wildlife.”

PEER and the Center for Food Safety are pursue litigation in the Southeast, where many refuges still grow GE crops.  National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades, but in recent years refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because that is only seed farmers can obtain.  Today, the majority of crops grown on refuges are genetically engineered.  Some scientists warn that GE crops can lead to increased pesticide use on refuges, which they say can harm birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife.  

“GE crops have no place in National Wildlife Refuges,” said Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety.  “These pesticide-resistant crops pose significant risks to the very wildlife those refuges serve to protect, including massively increasing pesticide use and creating of pesticide-resistant super weeds.  This Northeast region-wide ban is an important step in the right direction, but the Fish & Wildlife Service must stop planting these crops in other regions as well.”