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MARCH 2009



Federal judge says no to modified crops on U.S. refuge land

By Bill Lambrecht

WASHINGTON – In a court case with potential impact in Missouri and across the country, a federal judge in Delaware ruled today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife should not have permitted farming with genetically modified crops on a national wildlife refuge.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Sleet wrote that the Fish and Wildlife agency erred by failing to conduct environmental studies to determine whether farming with genetically modified crops at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware was compatible with conservation and habitat preservation.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, Sleet wrote, does "not contest that their own biologists determined that these activities posed significant environmental risks to Prime Hook, including biological contamination, increased weed resistance and damage to soils."

The successful suit was brought by the Audubon Society in Delaware and two Washington-based nonprofits, the Center for Food Safety and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Until 2006, the federal agency had permitted local farmers to plant genetically engineered soybeans and corn on the 10,000-acre refuge. When the groups contested the plantings, the Fish and Wildlife Service canceled 37 farming contracts.

The judge granted the groups’ request for an injunction that would prohibit any future cultivation with genetically modified crops until an environmental assessment or a more detailed environmental impact statement was conducted.

Tony Leger, the Fish and Wildlife regional refuge manager, said that his agency had halted farming because the groups had made some good arguments. "We can’t disagree with the plaintiffs that we should have done a better analysis of our program," he said.

Leger said he was speaking only for his region in the northeast and not for refuge managers around the country, where farming with genetically modified crops is common.

In Missouri, for instance, the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River had hundreds of acres of genetically modified soybeans and corn planted, according to data that the Fish and Wildlife Agency provided to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Similarly, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois has well over 2,000 acres in crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, according to the federal agency.

The case had added implications in the St. Louis region because most genetically modified crops are sold or licensed by Monsanto Co., of Creve Coeur.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the public employees’ environmental group, said he planned to send the court ruling to managers at more than 80 Fish and Wildlife refuges that permit farming.

"If we don’t see movement, our litigation plan is to select a refuge in each region of the country and file similar suits," he said.