A newly released memo from the U.S. Department of the Interior has rescinded a 2014 ban on the use of pesticides proven to harm bees and the planting of genetically-modified crops in national wildlife refuges were farming is allowed.

Environmental groups condemned the decision, citing concerns over the well-being of wildlife that could be affected by the pesticides. Hunting groups, meanwhile, cheered the reversal on GMO crops.

Feeding the birds

The memo, dated Aug. 2 and written by Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Greg Sheehan, cited the reversals as necessary to help ensure that migratory water fowl, such as ducks and geese, have adequate foraging opportunities in the wildlife refuges.

"Some National Wildlife Refuge Lands are no longer able to provide the amount or quality of food that they once did due to changes in cooperative food practices within the Refuge system," Sheehan wrote. "Realizing that farming practices will continue into the foreseeable future within the NWRS ... we must ensure that we are appropriately making use of farm practice innovations as we actively manage farm areas."

Those innovations include the use of GMO crops, the cultivation of which will be decided on a "case-by-case basis," Sheehan wrote.

"A blanket denial of Genetically Modified Organisms 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."

Agricultural fields filled with cranes and geese, with industrial buildings in the background, in Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Agricultural fields filled with cranes and geese in Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The Valle de Oro refuge is one of the sites allowed to use genetically modified crops and neonics again. (Photo: Catherine Leight/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region/Flickr)

Farming on wildlife refuges is a long-standing practice. Ranchers may allow their cattle to graze on refuge land, and farmers may grow crops. The wildlife benefits from the additional food while farmers and ranchers are able to supplement income or give cattle more grazing land. The process for farming on a refuge is competitive and tailored specifically to each refuge.

Additionally, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics, in conjunction with GMO crops was also re-allowed on a case-by-case basis in over 50 refuges.

Sheehan's memo reverses the policies established during the Obama administration, specifically rescinding a 2014 memo that banned the use of GMO crops and neonics in wildlife refuges.

"We have demonstrated our ability to successfully accomplish refuge purpose 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," James Kurth, then-chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, wrote at the time.

Kurth's memo banned the use of neonics in accordance with "wildlife management practices" due to concerns that the pesticide could "affect a broad spectrum of non-target species."

Bad news for bees

Nevada bumble bee on a purple flower in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge Genetically modified crops resist pesticides, but bees don't. (Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr)

The National Wild Turkey Foundation and Ducks Unlimited released a joint statement, praising the allowance of GMO crops.

"Ducks Unlimited and the NWTF advocate for science-based decision making," Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall said in the statement. "That includes bringing attention to decisions that restrict effective wildlife management and were clearly not based on science. We are pleased the USFWS reversed this decision and restored this essential tool for waterfowl and wildlife management to our National Wildlife Refuges."

The use of GMO crops remains controversial. Most Americans favor labeling products that contain genetically-modified foods, but they also have a poor understanding of the science behind GMOs. The National Academy of Science has maintained there is no evidence that genetically modified crops harm human health or the environment.

The science behind the use of neonics is a little clearer. These pesticides are popular because to combat a wide variety of pest over a long period of time without harming the plants. However, neonics have also been demonstrated to harm both wild bees and honeybees, most notably in a large 2017 study. Those findings helped convince the European Union to ban the use of neonics in April.

"Agricultural pesticides, especially bee-killing neonics, have no place on our national wildlife refuges," senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity Hannah Connor said in a statement released by the center. "This huge backward step 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. It's senseless and shameful."

Interior Department to allow bee-harming pesticides, GMO crops in some wildlife areas
Rescinding a 2014 ban, the planting of genetically-modified crops and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides are allowed in U.S. national wildlife refuges again.