(Beyond Pesticides, September 28, 2023) As the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), there is a growing recognition that the planet faces an existential biodiversity crisis, with a rising number of species on the brink of extinction. In a collective effort to address threats to global biodiversity (i.e. diversity of all life), a coalition of environmental organizations including Beyond Pesticides, are sending an urgent letter to President Joe Biden. This letter, titled “Meeting the Challenges of the Biodiversity and Extinction Crisis Over the Next 50 Years,” calls for bold and comprehensive action to preserve our planet’s natural heritage for future generations.
The ESA is celebrated as one of the most effective conservation laws globally, credited with preventing the extinction of 99 percent of listed species. Over the past five decades, the ESA has played a pivotal role in preventing these extinctions by safeguarding the most critically endangered species within biological communities. However, this concentration on highly threatened species often results in temporary solutions that may not comprehensively address the broader issue of biodiversity loss. The ESA establishes a framework to categorize species as “endangered” or “threatened,” granting them specific protections. While it is crucial in preventing species extinction, it does not proactively enhance biodiversity.
Under the ESA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to consult with relevant agencies when registering chemicals to assess their impact on endangered species. Unfortunately, EPA has consistently fallen short in fulfilling this statutory obligation, as highlighted over years of reporting by Beyond Pesticides.
EPAâ€™s Office of Pesticide Programs has a checkered history of responding to biological opinions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service as part of the pesticide registration process. EPAâ€™s announcement in March 2022 allowing the continued use of malathion follows the release of aÂ final biological opinionÂ by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which, according to theÂ Center for Biological DiversityÂ (CBD), â€śrelies on scientifically unfounded assessment methods imposed during the Trump administration [and] stands in sharp contrast to the agencyâ€™s 2017 conclusion that 1,284 species would likely be jeopardized by malathion.â€ť Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a sister agency to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, released anÂ updated biological opinionÂ that determined malathion and two other toxic organophosphate pesticides are causing jeopardy to virtually every endangered U.S. salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead species, as well as to Puget Sound orcas. See Beyond Pesticides action Tell EPA To Take Meaningful Action To Protect Endangered Species.
The letter to President Biden emphasizes the need for a whole-of-government approach to address this crisis and underscores the importance of consulting with Tribal governments and honoring federal trust obligations to Indigenous communities. Recognizing and incorporating indigenous knowledge and practices in conservation efforts is deemed crucial to safeguard biodiversity, protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and ensure social equity and justice.
The letter calls on President Biden to take the following actions:
- Implement Whole of Government Approaches to Saving Biodiversity and Endangered Species: A national biodiversity strategy is proposed to serve as a blueprint for a coordinated response to biodiversity loss, addressing primary threats such as habitat degradation, climate change, wildlife exploitation, invasive species, and pollution.
- Boost Recovery of Endangered Species Through Robust Funding and Engaging Agencies Across Government: Adequate funding for the ESA and the prioritization of conservation and recovery efforts by all federal agencies, in consultation with Tribal and Indigenous communities, are essential to reversing species decline.
- Adopt an Ambitious Ecosystem-based Framework to Recover Endangered Species and Rebuild Americaâ€™s Wildlife Populations: The letter calls for a holistic approach to recovery that considers a species’ role in ecosystems and protects key areas to increase resiliency and preserve biodiversity hotspots.
In light of the alarming global decline in biodiversity, the letter underscores the urgency of bold, visionary action by the Biden administration. The signatories express their commitment to working collaboratively with the government to ensure the Endangered Species Act and new initiatives for biodiversity conservation continue to save and restore the natural world for the next 50 years and beyond.
EPA recognizes its failure in assessing the impact of pesticides on endangered animals and plants. A settlement agreement was recently approved in federal district court and it mandates EPA to implement a series of endangered species protections from pesticides, covering over 300 pesticide active ingredients. The plaintiffs in the agreement are Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) and the defendants are the EPA (with defendant-interveners CropLife America). On EPA’s website, Assistant Administrator for EPAâ€™s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michal Freedhoff, said, “This agreement is a win-win-win to protect endangered species, ensure the availability of pesticides needed to grow food across America, and save considerable time and taxpayer expenses required to further litigate this case.â€ť
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the EPA will develop strategies to reduce harm from various pesticides, including herbicides and insecticides, while focusing on protecting the most vulnerable species. The agreement also requires the EPA to develop protection strategies for herbicides by 2024, insecticides by 2025, and address the harms of hazardous insecticides on endangered species by 2027. Simultaneously, the agency has initiated efforts to address a significant backlog of evaluations, a task so extensive that it may require several additional decades to fully catch up. EPA agency officials wrote, â€śEven if EPA completed this work for all of the pesticides that are currently subject to court decisions and/or ongoing litigation, that work would take until the 2040s, and even then, would represent only 5 percent of EPAâ€™s ESA obligations.â€ť Under the Biden administration, EPA, prompted by a series of court rulings, has committed to a reversal of its previous stance as it conducts reviews of new pesticides.Â
One of the best ways to prevent biodiversity loss is to eliminate the toxic chemicals that negatively impact and kill wildlife. Scientists have documented the negative impacts of pesticides on wildlife since before the ESA. For example, glyphosate impairs collective thermoregulation in bumblebees, organophosphates, and carbamates can affect the nervous system of wildlife by inhibiting an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, and numerous other studies about the impact on wildlife have been cataloged here. Beyond Pesticides has a goal to eliminate petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers by 2032, because all life on Earth should not have to wait another 50 years. Join Beyond Pesticides at our 40th National Forum Series and learn how you can forge a biodiverse future. Register here!
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.