Late last week, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy banning the use of GMO crops and a controversial class of pesticides thought to harm bees and birds in federal wildlife refuges. The news generated some eye-popping headlines and raises the question: Why would land managers plant genetically engineered corn and soy plants and spray harmful pesticides in federal refuges for wildlife in the first place?
Wildlife refuges across the country have entered into cooperative agreements with private farmers, allowing them to farm on federal land in exchange for dedicating a portion of the agricultural area to habitat restoration and providing forage for migrating birds. Due to rapid habitat loss, birds and butterflies have come to depend on wildlife refuges along their migration routes to survive.
Refuges have historically used these private farms to prepare seed beds for native habitats and provide food for migrating birds. However, environmentalists say some of these farms use pesticides and GMO row-crop techniques that can harm wildlife.
For example, an increase in pesticide use associated with certain GMOs has decimated plants that provide food for monarch butterflies.
More than 490,000 pounds of potentially dangerous pesticides were sprayed on farms in wildlife refuges for agricultural reasons in 2016 alone, according to a recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity. Similar amounts of chemicals were used in prior years, even as pesticide-resistant GMO crops were phased out.
“Wildlife refuges are places where we should be protecting wildlife, not promoting use of highly toxic poisons on row crops,” Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center and author of the report, said in a statement.
During the Obama administration, environmental groups filed a series of successful lawsuits against the use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops at these farms, which can increase the amount of weed-killing chemicals farmers use. In 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife…