The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an environmental review of the use of genetically modified crops in wildlife refuges.
National wildlife refuges have long used farming as a management tool, and refuge managers say using Roundup Ready crops is often the best way to restore native prairie and grassland.
The farming operations clear weed infested land and prepare a good seedbed before planting native grasses and wildflowers, which provides improved habitat and food for wildlife.
That makes farming is a critical tool, said Scott Kahan, who manages refuge lands around Detroit Lakes. Every year, he leases small plots of land to farmers who grow soybeans or corn on the land.
"Without doing that initial seedbed preparation we've met with some pretty disappointing results with lots of weeds and poor establishment of the grasses and wildflowers we're trying to get going there," Kahan said.
Kahan said if the agency approves the continued use of genetically modified crops like Roundup Ready soybeans, it would help limit the environmental affects of farming. Because genetically modified crops use less herbicide, the active ingredient in Roundup does not persist in soil, he said.
Other herbicides stay in the soil for two years or more and stop native plants from germinating, he said.
Crops are also planted on refuges to provide food for waterfowl and other wildlife.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's environmental assessment, currently open for public review, recommends continued use of genetically modified crops in the Midwest wildlife refuge system. There are 54 national wildlife refuges and 12 wetland management districts in the eight-state Midwest Region.
A handful of environmental groups, including the Washington D.C.-based Center For Food Safety, are challenging the use of genetically modified crops on wildlife refuges in other parts of the country.
Paige Tomaselli, an attorney for the center, said an environmental assessment is a good first step.
But as for the contention that Roundup Ready crops are environmentally safer, Tomaselli said there is no "actual proof that there are less herbicides being used, proof that the genetically modified crop will not harm human health or animal health and proof that resistant weeds will not be proliferated by this practice."
"Right now all the evidence we see is pointing in the opposite direction," she said.
Tomaselli said there should be no farming on national wildlife refuges.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says it plans to cut back on farming in favor of native vegetation to provide food for wildlife.
In the Midwest Region, row crops in refuges cover 20,418 acres, or 1.6 percent of Refuge System lands. In Minnesota 2,340 acres of Refuge System lands are farmed, less than half a percent of all Refuge System lands in the state.
Mike Brown, a policy expert for the Midwest Region Fish and Wildlife Service, said less than 2 percent of all refuge land is farmed. That number will be less than 1 percent in the next 15 years, he said.
Even if the continued use of genetically modified crops is made policy, he said, there will be a high standard for refuge managers to meet.
"Keep in mind that you'd still only be able to use them where it's been determined they're essential to accomplishing a refuge purpose," Brown said. "There's a process where on a case by case basis you're going to have to state your case and get it approved at the regional level."
The environmental assessment is open for public comment through Feb. 14. A final decision on the use of genetically modified crops on wildlife refuges is expected in the next couple of months.