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Study Links Ethanol Production to Habitat Destruction

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Thursday, March 23, 2017   

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin is among the top ten states for ethanol production, with nine plants pumping out more than 500 million gallons of ethanol each year. But a new study shows a strong tie between ethanol production and the destruction of wildlife habitat.

Environmental Protection Agency rules say wildlife habitat should not be converted to crop production. But study coauthor Ben Larson, senior manager of forestry and bioenergy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the EPA has been taking shortcuts and not enforcing that rule. He said wildlife habitat near ethanol plants is being turned into land for crop production.

"Rather than actually requiring that ethanol plants check where their feedstocks were coming from, EPA said they would just look at a national level, and assume that none of the feedstocks were coming from recently converted land,” Larson said.

The study shows this assumption is faulty, and shows a clear connection between corn ethanol production and habitat destruction.

A University of Wisconsin Madison study showed that millions of acres of wildlife habitat nationwide have been converted to crop production - most of it planted with corn for ethanol. Study coauthor Chris Wright, a complex systems analyst with the Natural Resources Research Institute, said that land was habitat for ducks, butterflies, grassland birds, and other species. But there's another impact.

"Those lands play an important role in terms of preventing excessive runoff, erosion control; they also actually absorb a lot of carbon from the atmosphere,” Wright said. "So, they have a positive benefit in terms of greenhouse gas reduction."

Larson said the study points to the need for the EPA to rethink how it implements the Renewable Fuel Standard, and to enforce the rule about ethanol plants and corn use.

"Mind you, we're talking about millions of acres - it's not like we're talking about minute areas of land,” he said. "But on a national scale, even millions of acres are relatively small. But for the species that rely on grasslands and wetlands, this is a really major impact, because we've been losing grasslands and wetlands for a long, long time."

The National Wildlife Federation has said it wants to work with the EPA and Congress on strong policies that protect wildlife habitat and water quality, while still promoting sustainable fuels to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.


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