Ducks forage on a field in a National Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee. National Wildlife Refuges in North Carolina say being allowed to coordinate with farmers to plant genetically engineered crops will improve forage for wildlife at their sites and also benefit the farmers, while reducing harm to the environment. Photo courtesy of Clayton Ferrell, National Wildlife Refuges System.

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The path has been cleared for genetically engineered crops, called GECs, to be used again on national wildlife refuges in the Southeast, including in North Carolina.

National wildlife refuges in the region have been unable to use GECs on their properties since 2013 due to concerns about using genetically modified seeds.

Some refuges maintain cooperative farming partnerships, where farmers plant crops on refuge property but leave a portion unharvested. That remaining portion is used for wildlife.

While not all national wildlife refuges in North Carolina have cooperative farming partnerships, the changes had serious effects on those that do.

“Refuges in the Southeast were under court order since 2012 to conduct additional environmental review before approving the use of GEC seed, so the following refuges in North Carolina suspended use of GEC seed beginning in 2013: Mackay Island, Alligator River, Pocosin Lakes and Pee Dee,” said Heath Hagy, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Swans on Pungo Lake in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lewis of the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge complex

“In addition, Mattamuskeet historically also provided crops for foraging habitat but had earlier suspended its use of agricultural practices. However, this refuge may consider beginning again at some point. Since publication of the final programmatic environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact on June 4, 2020, as of now we are not aware of any feedback on the potential use of GEC seeds on refuges next spring.”

Mackay Island has property in both North Carolina and Virginia but is only farmed on the North Carolina side, according to Hagy. After 2012, it also was no longer able to use GECs.

“We are assessing input from various constituents on the use of genetically engineered crops in our refuges,” Hagy said.

“Our research has shown that GECs’ use reduces the amount of pesticides growers would have to use if they didn’t avail themselves of GECs. Crops on refuges are an important source of forage for migratory waterfowl. Their use has support from the service, growers who have relied on refuge properties to grow some of their crops, some of which are set aside for wildlife.”

A mature soybean field can be attractive foraging for wildlife. Photo courtesy of the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge

Farming troubles

J.D. Bricken, retired manager of Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Anson County, said he thought management became more difficult once GECs were not permitted.

Farmers often have difficulty finding traditional corn seed, he said.

“With the refuge and efficiency, we have to make it practical,” Bricken said. “Farmers won’t plant much longer if they can’t use GMOs.”

Bricken’s own home garden is organic. He purposely overplants for his needs, knowing his garden won’t be as efficient as it would be if he used chemical pesticides or genetically modified seeds. But it’s worth it for him.

Home gardens are vastly different from refuge property, however.

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While he dislikes using chemicals on refuge property, Bricken sees it as a necessity, as GECs are no longer an option.

With the loss of wetlands and only limited planting area available to provide for waterfowl, Bricken said, efficiency is key. At Pee Dee, the yield averages about 130 bushels of corn per acre. By the river, the yield can be up to 200 bushels per acre.

“We’re mitigating for the loss of wetland,” Bricken said. “It’s much more productive per acre than native aquatic wetland species that produce, at most, one-tenth as much as nonnative, farming types of plants. The native aquatic plants that occur in the wetlands would be closer to eight-10 bushels per acre.”

Bricken said that ideally, ducks would eat primarily native aquatic plants, but the refuge has to plant what it can to maximize food for them. To him, that includes using GECs.

“The sad thing is that we want the same thing that environmentalists want: We want happy, healthy waterfowl,” Bricken said.

Bricken said his experience as a farmer gave him a unique perspective that not all refuge managers have when it comes to crops and efficiency. He also understands the importance of valuing farmers’ investments, not just in the seed, but in soil amendments and time.

Hagy said via email that Pee Dee is an example of a wildlife refuge that suffered ill effects after the ban on GECs.

“The lack of approval to use GEC seeds at Pee Dee NWR since 2013 has led to progressively more difficult invasive plant control problems and a steady reduction in annual yield from crops, negatively impacting wintering waterfowl foraging habitat,” Hagy said.

The loss of available wildlife forage on refuges in the state was also affected by the reduced collaborative farming partnerships. According to Hagy, “several” partnering farmers did not renew their contracts with refuges after the use of GECs was prohibited.

GEC concerns

Two public comment periods were held in April via Zoom, drawing 66 people, according to the finalized programmatic environmental assessment, or PEA. Separate comments were also received.

“The service received 12,157 submissions on the draft PEA, with 157 unique submissions and the remainder duplicates. … 205 comments were included in the submissions,” the service noted in the finalized PEA.

Comments ranged from feeling the comment period should be extended due to the pandemic to wanting more input from native tribes. (The service did extend the period by 30 days and said it did reach out to multiple tribes.)

One request was for the service to use organic seeds.

“Cooperative agriculture agreements … are opened for competitive bids every five years,” the service wrote in the PEA. “Through this process, organic farmers could choose to enter a bid as long as they could demonstrate their ability to produce the required crop yields to meet wildlife objectives and control pests and invasive species.”

The service also highlighted reasons that all-organic seeds and other planting options were rejected as ideal choices, noting that low-lying fields, concerns about soil erosion from tilling, struggles to combat the nonnative weed Johnson grass and other concerns posed problems.

Similar to Bricken’s dilemma, the anticipated lower yield is another concern, according to the service.

“The average yield for organic corn was 118 bushels per acre in 2010, compared to 161 bushels for nonorganic corn,” according to the PEA.

“Organic wheat producers had an average yield of 30 bushels per acre in 2009, compared to 44 bushels for nonorganic production. Average yields for organic soybean producers in 2006 were also significantly lower, 31 versus 47 bushels per acre for nonorganic production.

“The preceding amount to an average yield penalty for organic production on commercial farms of 27% for corn, 32% for wheat, and 34% for soybeans. Given restrictions and challenges on most NWRs, we suspect that the yield disparity would be even greater between organic farming and GEC use on refuges and greatly reduce economic viability of cooperative farming partnerships and, in turn, reduce feasibility of using agriculture as a wildlife management practices on NWRs.”

Future of GECs on refuge property

The 174-page completed draft of the PEA extensively documents the refuges’ wildlife populations, crops and farming practices, and other factors that played into the decision, as well as a summary of the decision.

With that draft completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, refuges had to observe a 90-day waiting day period imposed by the courts. That period ended Sept. 3.

The refuges would still have to pass “environmental and policy reviews,” according to Hagy, as well as obtain permission from the regional refuge chief.

“Upon regional refuge chief approval, each respective refuge then would be able to regain advantages over both competing plant and insect pests to provide additional foraging habitat to achieve waterfowl objectives established for each of these refuges,” Hagy said.

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A earlier press release announced the finalization of the PEA noted that while refuges may technically be able to plant GECs this fall, planting wouldn’t occur until next spring. But farmers who plant on refuge land could begin to plan their spring orders. This was confirmed this week, by Pam Wingrove, who works with regional branch planning for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“We do not have any refuge currently finished with the additional compliance steps yet,” she said. 

“Practically speaking, it will most likely be spring before any refuge actually implements use but I expect stations to be doing their additional compliance this fall.  We have a webinar scheduled for the 17th to go through some additional guidance and examples our GEC Team has prepared to aid stations through the remaining steps.”

Not all North Carolina national wildlife refuges will be affected by the decision, but some may have the opportunity to use the GECs they’ve been unable to plant in several years.

According to Hagy, anywhere from three to five refuges in North Carolina may begin using GECs should they obtain clearance.

More information on and a downloadable copy of the completed draft of the Programmatic Environmental Assessment can be found here.

https://carolinapublicpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Geese-on-a-refuge.mov
Geese forage in a field within a National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of the National Wildlife Refuge System

Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com

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