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Daily News Blog

01
Oct

Court Rejects Case to Reinstate Environmental Protections on U.S. Wildlife Refuges, as Report Shows Increasing Pesticide Use

(Beyond Pesticides, October 1, 2020) A federal judge on September 24, 2020 dismissed an  environmental lawsuit seeking to reinstate a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rule, killed by the Trump Administration, which banned the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, genetically engineered (GE) crops, and adopted a precautionary approach to pest management. The decision comes on the heels of a Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) analysis that reports a 34% increase in the pesticide use on U.S. national wildlife refuge acres over a two year period from 2016-2018.

This analysis is an update to CBD’s 2018 report, No Refuge, which is the first of its kind to offer comprehensive details of agricultural pesticide spraying in national wildlife refuges. Wildlife refuges act as a sanctuary, providing habitat and protection essential for the survival and recovery of species nationwide. However, pesticide spraying in or around wildlife refuges threatens the survivability and recovery of species that reside there as many of these pesticides are highly toxic to human and animal health. Analyses like these are significant, especially since the globe is currently going through the Holocene Extinction, Earth’s 6th mass extinction, with one million species of plants and animals at risk of extinction.

In 2012, Beyond Pesticides and other environmental groups, led by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Center for Food Safety, won a court battle to halt genetically engineered crops, and related herbicide-tolerant herbicides, on wildlife refuges in the southeast. This led to a grassroots campaign and public pressure from advocates and environmental groups, resulting in a FWS decision to adopt a national phase out of GE crops and ban neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticide use on national wildlife refuges. However, in 2018, FWS reversed the prohibition of GE crops and neonicotinoids via a memorandum, which allows the refuge system to make decisions on the use of GE crops and neonics on a case-by-case basis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

With the increasing rate of biodiversity loss, advocates say it is essential for government agencies to enforce policies that eliminate pesticide use in wildlife refuges, not only to protect the well-being of animals, but humans as well. Hannah Connor, J.S.D., senior attorney at CBD notes, “It’s beyond senseless that we’re spraying even larger areas of America’s cherished national wildlife refuges with dangerous pesticides known to harm wildlife. We’re in the midst of a wildlife extinction crisis, and these places were set aside specifically as safe sanctuaries for some of our most endangered animals. The last thing they need is to have these poisons dumped on them.”

The U.S. has 568 national wildlife refuges—from forests and wetlands to various waterways—all of which play a vital role in protecting thousands of species, including over 200 endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) oversees refuge management and permits private farming on refuges to help prepare seedbeds to increase seed germination for native habitats and provide food for migratory birds and other species. However, the recent rise of industrial-scale commercial farming is now commonplace in wildlife refuges, exposing these sensitive habitats and its wildlife dependents to highly toxic pesticides that jeopardize abiding health.

To determine the extent of pesticide use in commercial agriculture on national wildlife refuge land, researchers examined pesticide use data in wildlife refuges obtained from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) public records via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

U.S. FWS data demonstrate a 34% increase in the number of acres to which agricultural pesticides were applied from 2016-2018, encompassing 363,000 acres of refuge land treated with 350,000 pounds of pesticides. Furthermore, the data reveals an increase in aerial spraying of pesticides by 35%. Lastly, wildlife refuges have experienced an over 70% higher level of dangerous pesticide inputs, including an 89%, 74%, and 100% increase in the most harmful of the pesticides dicamba2,4-D, and paraquat, respectively. The five national wildlife refuges complexes with the most pesticide contamination from agricultural pesticide applications include the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex (California and Oregon), Central Arkansas Refuges Complex (Arkansas), Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Mississippi), West Tennessee Refuge Complex (Tennessee), and Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Tennessee). 

The impact of pesticides on wildlife—including mammals, bees and other pollinators, fish and other aquatic organisms, birds, and the biota within the soil—is extensive. A plethora of studies document how exposure to these toxic chemicals cause reproductive, neurological, renal, hepatic, endocrine disruptive, and developmental anomalies, as well as cancers, in a wide range of species. There are policies in place to protect wildlife from harm, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which protects ecosystems on which threatened and endangered species depend. However, a 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences detected shortcomings in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) evaluation and analysis of pesticides on endangered species, with the agency regularly  disregarding the ESA’s requirement to confer with federal wildlife agencies on how to take precaution to protect threatened and endangered species from pesticide harms. Therefore, EPA, and other federal government agencies, including FWS, reformed the pesticide review process to meet the pesticide approval requirements for the ESA. 

GE crops perpetuate the use of neonicotinoids and other harmful pesticides as many of these crops are resistant to the pesticides used on them, forcing farmers to use more chemicals to treat persistent pest issues.

Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) routinely finds widespread pesticide contamination of surface waters throughout the U.S. Scientists warn that neonicotinoids, and other pesticides, pose a direct threat to both insect and non-insect wildlife, including birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife, which absorb pesticide sprays and vapors through respiration, as well as orally via food.

The reversal of the GE crop and neonicotinoid ban in national wildlife refuges are only a few of the many recent rollbacks on environmental regulations, which do little to protect ecosystem health that marine and terrestrial species, including humans, require. In March 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised their methods for “biological evaluations” (BE) to assess pesticide risks to endangered plant and animal species. However, these newly revised methods allow extensive harm to many of the most endangered plants and animal species nationwide. Additionally, 2019 regulations for the ESA, set forth by the Trump administration, “weaken the consultation process designed to prevent harm to endangered animals and their habitats from federal agency activities, curtail the designation of critical habitat and weakens the listing process for imperiled species, and eliminate all protections for wildlife newly designated as ‘threatened’ under ESA.”

Two of the most widely used pesticides in the U.S. (chlorpyrifos and malathion) have harmful effects on 97 percent of all species listed for protection under the ESA. In light of this, advocates maintain that government agencies must adopt policies that protect the vulnerable species from pesticide exposure. 

Although pesticide-treated acres in wildlife refuges increased and the total pounds of pesticides used per acre declined, the data obtained from the FWS does not account for the full calendar year. This lack of accountability means the data certainly underestimates total pesticide use since most of the pesticide-use decline was at one refuge—the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Most concerning are the range of hazardous pesticides commonly used on wildlife refuges, including dicamba, 2,4-D, and paraquat. Although these three chemicals are highly toxic to fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other animals—causing everything from birth and reproductive defects to cancer—they remain in use on wildlife refuges.

Additionally, a recent ruling by FWS allows an expansion of hunting and fishing in wildlife refuge areas. Not only does this expansion put extra stress on species already affected by pesticide exposure, but it also exposes hunters and anglers to pesticides that contaminate soils, waterways, and bioaccumulate inside of game animals. Hence, FWS must provide timely protection to the most critically imperiled species and their habitat by eliminating toxic pesticide use from chemical-intensive farming. CBD researchers concur with the organization’s previous 2016 analysis, maintaining that “continuing protection for species and their habitats are, therefore, crucial to preserving and maintaining the nation’s treasured natural heritage. By opening refuges to intensive farming that utilizes toxic pesticides, the Service has failed to carry out its primary purpose of protecting wildlife.”

The use of pesticides should be phased out and ultimately eliminated to protect the nation’s and world’s wildlife and reduce the number of dangerous pesticides exposed to species in wildlife refuges. Additionally, Beyond Pesticides has long fought against GE crops and pesticide use on refuges and has long advocated for federal regulations that consider all potential impacts of pesticides to ecosystems and organisms.Current administration regulations fail to consider the environment holistically, thus creating a blind spot that limits our ability to adopt widespread change that improves ecosystem health. With the Trump administration dismantling many environmental regulations, it is vital to understand how pesticide use on wildlife refuges can increase biodiversity loss, especially due to the increasing amount of dangerous pesticide use in these areas. The administration has now declined protection for more than 60 species and protected only 18 — the lowest of any president at this point in an administration. However, advocating for local and state pesticide reform policies can protect wildlife from pesticide-contamination. For more information on pesticide impacts on wildlife, visit Beyond Pesticides’ wildlife page

Furthermore, buyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides on crops located on wildlife refuges. Organic agriculture has many health and environmental benefits, which can eliminate the need for chemical-intensive agricultural practices in these sanctuaries. For more information on how organic is the right choice for both consumers and the farmworkers, see Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity Press Release, Center for Biological Diversity Analysis

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