Press Release | May 20, 2024

Conservation groups ask court to protect migratory bird sanctuary from toxic chemical application

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Conservation groups today asked a federal court to protect an iconic sanctuary for migratory birds from a government plan to spread a chemical that could harm and kill birds. On behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the experimental use of an algaecide identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as toxic to birds in the 40,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet. The shallow lake provides habitat for more than 250 bird species including swans, ducks, and geese within the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.

“A bird sanctuary is no place to experiment with a chemical that is toxic to birds,” said Ramona McGee, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Wildlife Program. “We’re asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to put the mission and purpose of this wildlife refuge first, and not turn wild birds into lab rats when there are much better ways available to maintain the health of the lake.”

A plan is already underway to improve water quality and reduce algae blooms in the lake, but after North Carolina’s General Assembly appropriated millions of North Carolina taxpayer funds to test the algaecide, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved its use in Lake Mattamuskeet, even though the chemical can kill birds and corrode their beaks. In recent years, the Florida Legislature has spent millions applying this product to several lakes and rivers, where it has failed to provide a lasting solution to harmful algal blooms that keep people and pets from using the water.

“It might seem reasonable to assume that the federal government would refrain from using a national bird sanctuary to test a private company’s experimental algaecide, particularly one that reads ‘toxic to birds’ on the label, and yet here we are,” said Erin Carey, acting director, N.C. Chapter of Sierra Club. “The North Carolina Sierra Club is proud to stand between the delicate and irreplaceable beauty of Lake Mattamuskeet and the casual disregard of corporate interest.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service should do everything in its power to conserve this important bird sanctuary,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Instead, FWS is giving the green light for a private company to turn a wild sanctuary into a laboratory for experimental, unproven treatments with known dangers to the very wildlife the refuge is intended to protect.”

The lawsuit challenges violations of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act, and was filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The conservation groups represented by SELC are asking the court to block the plan until the FWS conducts a full analysis that protects the mission and purpose of the wildlife refuge and takes a hard look at the toxic algaecide’s harms and the available alternatives.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Kathleen Sullivan

Senior Communications Manager (NC)

Phone: 919-945-7106
Email: [email protected]

Partner Contacts

Jay Petrequin

Defenders of Wildlife

Phone: 202-772-0243
Email: [email protected]

Margaret Lillard

NC Sierra Club

Phone: 919-332-8979
Email: [email protected]