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Obama Administration Takes Important Step to Protect Endangered Species From Pesticides
WASHINGTON— The Environmental Protection Agency and several other federal agencies released new policies (see PDF) on November 14 designed to better assess the risks that pesticides pose to endangered species. These policies will ensure that mitigation measures recommended by the federal wildlife agencies are put in place to protect endangered species in agricultural areas, as well as in areas downstream that are affected by pesticide runoff. They come in response to an April 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences that criticized the EPA for failing to fully assess the impact of pesticides on endangered species.
“The actions announced today represent an important step forward in protecting our nation’s most endangered plants and animals from toxic pesticides, but this is just the first step,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The EPA needs to do much more to ensure this new plan results in meaningful, on-the-ground conservation actions to protect our most endangered species and their habitats.”
For more than two decades, the EPA has routinely disregarded the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with federal wildlife agencies on how to implement conservation measures to protect threatened and endangered species from pesticides. As a result endangered species have been put at unnecessary risk of exposure to toxic pesticides. In 2011 Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to study this issue and report on ways of addressing the EPA’s failures to fully protect listed species.
The Academy report identified deficiencies for all the agencies involved in pesticide consultations, but singled out the EPA’s approach for its numerous analytical shortcomings, concluding the agency’s “does not estimate risk,” “is ad hoc,” and “has unpredictable performance outcomes.”
In response to the Academy’s recommendations, the EPA announced several reforms designed to better protect endangered species. Most importantly the agency will now consult on all sublethal, indirect and cumulative impacts on endangered species and their critical habitats from pesticides. It will only be allowed to bypass full consultation for endangered species when the anticipated risk of lethal pesticide exposure is less than one in a million. The agency will also now consider the effects of pesticides on listed species and their critical habitat in areas downstream of agricultural areas where the chemicals are used.
“With over a billion pounds of pesticides applied each year in this country — the highest pesticide usage rate in the world — the dangers to America’s endangered wildlife are still enormous,” said Hartl. “It’s time for the EPA to start using the best available science and put in place common-sense conservation measures.”
The Endangered Species Act consultation process is designed to identify which pesticides are the most harmful to protected species and determine reasonable conservation measures to protect species, such as using less-toxic chemicals, creating no-spray buffer zones next to creeks and rivers, and adopting integrated pest-management solutions to reduce overall pesticide use. The EPA’s Office of Pesticides Policy has systemically failed to consult on the impacts of pesticides on endangered species, though the consultation process is routine in nearly every arm of the federal government. As a result of this failure, there are more than 1,000 pesticides that have not undergone any meaningful review of their potential impacts on endangered species.
“It will take a lot of hard work and additional resources from all of the federal agencies involved to address this backlog, but at least now agencies are moving forward together,” said Hartl. “This critically important work is worth those additional efforts. As far back as the era of DDT, endangered species have been our canary in the coal mine; making sure endangered species are protected from pesticides is the best way to make sure all of us are protected.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.