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Study Tallies Wildlife Habitat Loss Near Ethanol Plants

Illinois ranks third in the nation for the amount of ethanol it produces. A new study says that comes at a cost to wildlife. (usda.gov)
Illinois ranks third in the nation for the amount of ethanol it produces. A new study says that comes at a cost to wildlife. (usda.gov)
March 23, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Wildlife habitat near corn ethanol refineries has been destroyed at a fast pace since a federal law was passed to produce more biofuels. A new study says that across the U.S., 4 million acres of land within a 100 mile radius of ethanol plants have been converted to agricultural use within four years of passing the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Landscape ecologist and study coauthor Chris Wright said the corn belt states have seen much of the habitat destruction.

"It was the ethanol refineries out on the periphery of the industry where we saw significant land-use change,” Wright said.

Ethanol production in Illinois in 2016 topped 1.6 billion gallons. Congress passed the RFS in 2007 to require blending corn-based ethanol and other renewable fuels with gasoline.

Ben Larson, senior manager of forestry and bioenergy at the National Wildlife Federation and a report coauthor, said the federal law contains language to protect wildlife habitat by not allowing recently converted land to be used for biofuel production. But he said the EPA took a shortcut in implementing the policy: it adds the total of all cropland and looks at whether it increases over time at the national level.

"Well, at that national level, you really can't see the concentrated pockets of conversion that we show are happening around ethanol plants,” Larson explained. "It's like if you pull back from the earth far enough, you lose sight of where the impacts are happening."

Another study found 7 million acres of land nationwide had been converted to crop production in the four years following the passage of the RFS, with corn being the most common crop. Larson said this kind of conversion rate has a serious impact on wildlife.

"For the wildlife species that rely on grasslands and wetlands that are being converted to cropland, habitat loss is not an academic issue,” he said. "For instance, grassland birds as a group have suffered the most severe population declines of about any group of species. And that's largely as a result of habitat loss."

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Wisconsin, and the National Wildlife Federation.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL