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Neonicotinoid and GMOs Ban in National Wildlife Refuges

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Why it Matters

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the nation’s largest collection of land set aside for fish and wildlife preservation. Protecting biological diversity and integrity and conserving the system’s wildlife are the central tenets of the Refuge System’s mission.

Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic pesticides that have proven negative impacts on pollinators, migratory birds, and other wildlife. Genetically modified seeds are often developed to be resistant to a certain pesticide, like a neonicotinoid, ensuring that the pesticide can be used freely without harming the crop yield. Banning the pair within the Refuge System protects the lands and wildlife from harmful chemicals.


Oct. 9, 1997 The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 amends the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act of 1966 to provide further instruction for management of the Refuge System. The law emphasizes the mission of protecting and conserving wildlife on the lands, including fish, plants, and migratory birds.

July 17, 2014 The Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System issues a memorandum pledging to phase out the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified crops in agricultural practices within the Refuge System by January 2016.

Trump Era

Aug. 2, 2018 FWS issues a memorandum withdrawing the 2014 prohibition on neonicotinoid pesticides and GMOs. The 2018 memo states that the Refuge System will determine use of GMO seeds and neonicotinoid pesticides on a case-by-case basis.

Sep. 26, 2019 Conservation groups file suit in the District of Columbia against the Department of the Interior and FWS for reversing the GMO and neonicotinoid pesticide ban, Center for Biological Diversity v. Bernhardt, 1:19-cv-02898 (D.D.C.). The groups argue that the reversal substantively violated the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and unlawfully failed to follow required procedures under the National Environmental Procedure Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

March 19, 2020 FWS release a draft environmental assessment for the potential use of genetically engineered crops in wildlife refuges in the Southeastern United States. The draft assessment states that agriculture takes place on approximately 1% of these refuges.

May 20, 2019 Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY-7) introduces the Protect Our Refuges Act, H.R.2854, prohibiting the use of neonicotinoids within the National Wildlife Refuge System. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduces a related bill, S.1856, in the Senate on June 19, 2019.

June 5, 2020 FWS release a final environmental assessment for the potential use of genetically engineered crops in wildlife refuges in the Southeastern United States. FWS conclude that there is no significant impact from this change and thus a more in-depth environmental review is unnecessary. This means that genetically engineered crops could soon be used in certain wildlife refuges, though FWS projects the seeds will first be used in the spring.

Sep. 24, 2020 The District Court for the District of Columbia grants the Department of Interior’s motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the FWS memorandum. Center for Biological Diversity v. Bernhardt, No. 1:19-cv-02898 (D.D.C.).