Interior Department OKs use of GMOs on wildlife refuges; no immediate impact on Montana

Much like Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge north of Missoula, above, most of the refuges named in the new memo are centered on wetlands, swamps and lakes, such as Missouri’s Clarence Cannon Wildlife Refuge that sits in the Mississippi River floodplain. Once pesticides enter the water, neonicotinoids can spread beyond the refuge boundaries. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

A leaked Interior Department memo approving the use of GMOs and pesticides may not have an immediate effect on Montana wildlife refuges, but could have implications for the future.

On Friday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Gregory Sheehan sent an internal memo saying he was reversing a 2014 Obama administration memorandum that phased out wildlife refuges’ use of genetically modified crops and associated pesticides, including neonicotinoid pesticides that have been implicated in the decline of bees and other beneficial insects.

Reuters obtained a copy of the memorandum and published a subsequent news story on its content and implications.

In the document, Sheehan said eliminating the restriction would help refuge managers grow more forage for waterfowl and migratory bird species.

“A blanket denial of GMOs does not provide on-the-ground latitude for refuge managers to work adaptively and make field-level decisions about the best manner to fulfill the purposes of the refuge,” Sheehan wrote.

He went on to say that use of GMOs and pesticides would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The memo mentioned 50 wildlife refuges specifically, most in the southeastern U.S. Many of those refuges already have limited cooperative farming, in part to control weeds and create forage and cover for waterfowl and wildlife.

The Ducks Unlimited website lists 18 Montana wildlife refuges as providing excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities, but none were included in the wildlife refuge memo.

Most of Montana’s refuges use grazing or prescribed burns to deal with unwanted plants, although the War Horse National Wildlife Refuge and three smaller refuges in the Charles M. Russell Wetland Management District use some cooperative grain farming.

Some Montana refuges, including Benton Lake near Great Falls, say on their websites: “Cooperative farming and grazing have not been used on the refuge recently, but may be used in the future.”

FWS spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman said refuge managers will have the authority to choose whether to use GMOs or cooperating farmers can request to use them, but “the manager must determine that the use of GMOs is essential to accomplishing refuge purposes.”

Any decision must go through the public process. Lately, however, agencies have sometimes used “categorical exclusions” – for example, if the project is smaller than a set number of acres – to bypass public comment.

Large chemical companies such as Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta have modified crops specifically to be able to withstand the pesticides they manufacture, so GMOs and pesticides go hand in hand.

Consumer and environmental groups are alarmed with bringing back neonicotinoid pesticides, which can kill insects by attacking the central nervous system.

Some research, including a study released last week by the California Environmental Protection Agency and another released in February by the European Food Safety Authority, indicated that some kinds of neonicotinoids don’t necessarily kill a bee but can affect bee behavior and contribute to colony collapse, depending on how and where it’s used.

As a result, in April, the European Union banned three kinds of neonicotinoid pesticides.

In his 2014 memo announcing the GMO ban, former Wildlife Refuge Chief Jim Kurth said the pesticides didn’t belong on refuges because they could affect a broad spectrum of non-target species.

“We have demonstrated our ability to successfully accomplish refuge purposes over the past two years without using genetically modified crops, therefore it is no longer possible to say that their use is essential to meet wildlife management objectives,” Kurth wrote.

Since then, a December 2017 Environmental Protection Agency assessment found birds could be harmed if they eat a certain percentage of neonicotinoid-treated seeds.

Finally, the very nature of the refuges may be a problem, because scientists are beginning to find traces of neonicotonoids in drinking water. A 2014 USGS study found widespread occurrence of neonicotinoids in nine Iowa streams around corn and soybean farms, including the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Much like Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge north of Missoula, most of the refuges named in the new memo are centered on wetlands, swamps and lakes, such as Missouri’s Clarence Cannon Wildlife Refuge that sits in the Mississippi River floodplain. Once pesticides enter the water, neonicotinoids can spread beyond the refuge boundaries.

Since the chemicals are somewhat new, not much is known about their effect on mammals, including humans. But Melissa Perry, a public health researcher at George Washington University, told the Washington Post last year that early findings of adverse human health effects shows “the issue clearly needs better attention.”

Senior counsel Peter Jenkins of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted that the agricultural biotech industry has been lobbying the Trump administration to reverse the ban on GMOs in wildlife refuges.

“These refuges are supposed to benefit wildlife, not a corporate bottom line,” Jenkins said in a statement.

Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark rejected Sheehan’s claim that the federal government needs to facilitate farming on refuges to compensate for lost farmland elsewhere, saying it’s contrary to the long-established purpose of the System.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hannah Connor said the policy “will harm bees and other pollinators already in steep decline simply to appease pesticide-makers and promote mono-culture farming techniques that trigger increased pesticide use.”

But not all environmental groups were opposed. Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation cheered the policy change, although they emphasized the need for the USFWS to safeguard against the use of dangerous pesticides.

“We applaud the Service’s recognition that their farming practices must stay current with common products and technology to sustain wildlife populations the refuge system was created to conserve,” said NWTF CEO Becky Humphries in a statement.