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Delaware Audubon Files New Lawsuit Against
Farming at Bombay Hook N.W.R.

Photo © Steven Breukelman

Delaware Audubon and two other environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit to force Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge to stop contract farming on the refuge until the required environmental reviews are conducted.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Delaware by the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic on behalf of the Delaware Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and the Center for Food Safety. It charges that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres to be plowed over without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

It is similar to a suit brought and won last year against Prime Hook NWR in Sussex County. Kenneth T. Kristl of the Widener Environmental Law Clinic said the decision could have far-reaching impact on other National Wildlife Refuges. Delaware Audubon wants to help ensure that widespread policy change will occur.

Both complaints allege violations of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act for failure to determine if the farming was compatible with the Refuge's purpose. A copy of the complaint is available to read at

The Prime Hook law suit challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's practice of allowing farming and the use of genetically modified crops within the Prime Hook NWR. The Court's March 24, 2009, order granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and enjoined farming until the government complied with the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (NWRSAA), NEPA, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

Former Delaware Audubon Conservation Chair Nicholas DiPasquale said, "The controversy at Prime Hook started when the refuge manager decided to allow approximately 150 acres of refuge land that had been part of a 3-year research project to be taken out of grassland and early successional habitat and put back into agricultural production. This decision was made without public notice or input."

PEER Counsel Christine Erickso said, "By definition, these refuges are to be administered to benefit wildlife, not farmers," noting that Fish & Wildlife Service policy explicitly forbids genetically modified agricultural crops in refuge management unless [they] determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s). "Genetically engineered (GE) crops serve no legitimate refuge purpose, and in fact impair the objectives for which the wildlife sanctuaries were originally established."

National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades to help prepare seed beds for native grasslands and provide food for migratory birds. In recent years, however, refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because that is the only seed farmers can obtain. Today, the vast majority of crops grown on refuges are genetically engineered.

Yet farming on wildlife refuges often interferes with protection of wildlife and native grasses. Scientists also warn that GE crops can lead to increased pesticide use on refuges and can have other negative effects on birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife. In the Prime Hook case, Federal District Court Chief Judge Gregory Sleet found that "it is undisputed that farming with genetically modified crops at Prime Hook poses significant environmental risks."

"There is no question that there has been a self-serving relationship between local farmers and the refuge management over time here in Delaware, going back to when Prime Hook and Bombay Hook were first created," commented Delaware Audubon president Mark Martell. "Farming on the Delaware refuges has resulted in surplus profits for the farmers with no tangible economic or environmental benefit to the refuges. These lands were purchased from farmers and other private landowners for their ecological significance along the Great Eastern Flyway."

"The law on this is clear, and it is clear that the law has been ignored. It took local caretakers and friends of these important refuges to push for enforcement of these existing laws and changes to refuge management practices. The original lawsuit regarding these practices at Prime Hook is a game changer and it is our fervent hope that Bombay Hook and other refuges around the country take notice."

"We simply want the Fish and Wildlife service to follow the existing governing laws of refuge management," says Martell. "Compatibility determinations regarding food sources should be done to make the case as to what food sources are available and what is needed. Any farming done on refuge lands should be done with refuge management purposes in the design, not done on behalf of local farmers whom the refuge management desire to appease in relationship management."

Martell also noted that both refuges are in the process of developing comprehensive management plans, and said he hopes the suit will encourage them to comply with existing federal laws and regulations.

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This page was last updated on March 11, 2010.