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Feds: Use genetically modified crops on refuges?

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold five public meetings around the South in June to hear what people think about using genetically modified crops on refuges to provide food for ducks, geese and other migrating waterfowl.

In a program that started in the 1930s, farmers working with the agency have harvested part of the crops they grow on about 44,000 acres scattered in 46 refuges across at least eight of the district's 10 states but mostly in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.

The agency began taking public comments Tuesday for an environmental analysis required under a ruling by U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington.

The Center for Food Safety, one of three environmental groups that sued the region, is pleased that the Southeast Region is taking the process seriously and engaging the public, senior staff attorney Paige Tomaselli said Tuesday. She said the groups will send representatives plaintiffs to at least one of those meetings. The center also will notify its members to send in comments, she said.

If the analysis finds that it's safe and reasonable for farmers to use seeds modified for resistance to the herbicide in Roundup or to include insect-killing bacteria, they could be planted in any of the district's 129 refuges, regional spokesman Tom MacKenzie said Tuesday. The district also includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands but there aren't any farmed fields on the island refuges, according to an agency map.

Boasberg heard one of three court challenges to policies allowing biotech crops to be planted in feeding plots in national wildlife refuges.  A case in Delaware ended the use of GMO seeds in the agency's 12-state Northeast Region. A judge in Minnesota ruled in October that the eight-state Midwest region had properly followed federal law when it OK'd herbicide-resistant seeds for habitat restoration on its 66 refuges. That district does not allow their use for habitat management, to provide food for animals, or to attract wildlife to spots where visitors can easily see them.

"Thirty-one of those refuges were growing GE crops at the time we filed the case in 2011.  Some of these refuges are no longer growing GE crops," Tomaselli wrote in an email.

She said the agency's eight-state Mountain-Prairie Region also is growing genetically engineered crops but its environmental assessment was similar to that in the Midwest Region, so the environmental groups have not taken that region to court.

"We are not planning on appealing in the Midwest region but are considering other litigation possibilities," she said.

About 100 million ducks and geese rely on refuges for wintering grounds and food, according to Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner, the Southeast Regional Director.

"These farming operations are an important part of our effort to meet conservation objectives ... for healthy populations of migratory birds," she said in a news release.

Until this year, the agency let farmers use seeds modified for resistance to the herbicide in Roundup or to include insect-killing bacteria.

It stopped after the Center for Food Safety and two other environmental groups sued in Washington, contending that the crops encourage overuse of herbicides and the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds, hurt beneficial insects and change soil ecology. Similar lawsuits filed by the groups in Delaware ended use of GM seeds in the agency's 12-state Northeast Region.

Boasberg's ruling calls for three years of checks to remove and destroy genetically modified seedlings at every Southeast Region refuge where the biotech crops have been planted. Those include four in Alabama, one in a refuge that crosses the Alabama-Georgia state line, eight in Arkansas, 11 in Louisiana, 10 in Mississippi, six in Tennessee, one in Kentucky and one that crosses the Kentucky-Tennessee line; four in North Carolina and one in South Carolina.

The agency also must conduct a new environmental analysis before deciding whether farmers may resume using genetically modified crops.

The meetings are part of that analysis. They are scheduled June 6 at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Columbia, N.C., June 10 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Ala., June 11 at the Dyersburg Activity Center in Dyersburg, Tenn., June 12 at the Natchez Convention Center in Mississippi and June 13 at the Best Western hotel in Alexandria, La.  In addition to those states, the region includes Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina.

The 90-day comment period will end July 28. People can also mail comments to the agency's Atlanta office, email them to fw4_gmcpea(at)fws.gov or upload them by clicking here.

Fish and Wildlife agreed on April 11 to pay $84,000 in attorney fees and costs for the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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