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Daily News Blog

28
Feb

Attack on Vulnerable Species Pilot Project: Opportunities to Engage with EPA on Endangered Species

The EPA is putting on hold its Vulnerable Species Project as advocates are calling for the strengthening of FIFRA-ESA.

(Beyond Pesticides, February 28, 2024) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is putting on hold its Vulnerable Species Project (VSP) after vociferous comments from the petrochemical pesticide industry to instead, “create a narrow, tailored policy rather than a sweeping, burdensome one,” according to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Upon heavy pushback from the petrochemical pesticide industry and agribusiness, EPA is hosting a variety of workshops and openings for the public to provide feedback not just on VSP, but the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Workplan the Biden Administration originally introduced in 2021 in its entirety. Advocates are calling for the strengthening of pesticide regulation given the impending decisions that may shape the fate of ESA-FIFRA (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) compliance for years to come.

As EPA continues through its pesticide registration program to advance continued dependency on pesticides through its interpretation of FIFRA, despite the availability of nontoxic alternatives, endangered species extinction and biodiversity collapse has never been a high priority. While EPA has initiated efforts to address a significant backlog of pesticide evaluations, Civil Eats has reported that the agency faces a task so extensive that it may require several additional decades to fully catch up. EPA officials stated, “Even 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 EPA’s ESA obligations.”  

In this context, the VSP’s primary goal, according to the EPA website, “will [be to] identify certain vulnerable listed species, identify mitigations to protect them from pesticide exposure, and then implement these mitigations across different types of pesticides (e.g., herbicides, insecticides).” In response to widespread scrutiny from industry actors over the breadth of the pilot project, EPA issued a press release on February 7, “EPA Outlines Implementation Approach for Endangered Species Act Pesticide Policies.” There are three key components to this press release: “Improved” Species Map, Credit for using Voluntary USDA Conservation Practices, and Offsets for Endangered Species Protections.

The “Species Map,” according to the ESA Work Plan guide, “ are a group of StoryMaps to raise public awareness about protecting endangered species from pesticides. These StoryMaps use an interactive format to describe the 27 pilot endangered and threatened (listed) species, their habitats, and why they are vulnerable from pesticide exposure.” The press release says, “In April, EPA plans to hold a workshop to facilitate and prioritize the development of [endangered species] maps, and EPA will also develop guidelines that the public can use to develop and submit refined maps for hundreds of other endangered species.” According to the Wall Street Journal opinion editorial, pesticide trade groups project that the pilot project would encompass 107 million acres across the United States, while EPA did not set a specific acreage. In November 2023, after receiving over 10,000 comments – many of which were from pesticide industry-aligned groups –EPA decided, among other changes, to “narrow the areas within the endangered species range map [for the Vulnerable Species Project] to only include locations that are important to conserving a species.” Beyond Pesticides will share more information regarding this workshop in the coming months.

The “Credit for using Voluntary USDA Conservation Practices” and “Offsets for Endangered Species Protections” sections, meanwhile, intend to substitute certain pollinator-friendly practices on the books for the introduction of new programs. Regarding USDA conservation practices, the press release says, “[On February 6], EPA signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with USDA describing how EPA can include NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) conservation practices on pesticide labels as one way growers who voluntarily perform those practices can use them to help fulfill pesticide label requirements. EPA and USDA are planning meetings and workshops in the coming months to further discuss the MOU and gain input from producers about mitigation options that may count toward fulfilling pesticide label requirements.” EPA’s insistence on focusing on labeling rather than more stringent regulation has led to adverse health impacts and the proliferation of environmental contaminants into not only the food supply chain but also endangered and non-endangered species. Regarding the Offsets for Endangered Species Protections, “EPA, other federal agencies, and stakeholders are participating in a workshop…this month to discuss how to bring offsets into EPA’s ESA-FIFRA work. This initiative should give pesticide registrants and users more flexibility to meet label requirements to protect endangered species, while directly contributing to recovering those species.” Beyond Pesticides points out that the practical effect of the offset approach may allow continued toxic pesticide use in those very agricultural areas that are habitats to the most vulnerable species and the workplace of farmworkers and people of color communities. To the extent that chemical-intensive farming practices are curtailed to protect endangered species, straightforward enforcement of the law, as intended, may also protect those who suffer disproportionately from adverse health effects associated with pesticide exposure, including heightened risk to cancer for male farmworkers and anemia and blood disorders to female farmworkers and farmers.

Even before this pushback from industry, EPA’s ESA strategy has long missed the marked in terms of ensuring that pesticides do not move off the target site and threaten the health of wildlife, pollinators, and ecosystems. For example, EPA granted the use of nucleic acid, a form of genetically engineered pesticide, to eliminate the threat of Colorado Potato Beetles for potato farmers within the United States and abroad, without considering the inevitable drift from permitted aerial spraying on fields to unintendedly targeted wildlife. According to advocates, this move represents the legacy of agency indifference to pesticide resistance originating in 1952 with the discovery of Colorado Potato Beetle resistance to DDT. For advocates, this is seen as a lack of leadership by the EPA Office of Pesticide Regulations (OPR) over the past half-century that manifests in the continuous decline of biodiversity through adverse impacts to bird, insect (e.g. butterfly), marine, and aquatic life from pesticides such as paraquat and neonicotinoids, for example.

On the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Endangered Species Act, Beyond Pesticides, in partnership with multiple environmental organizations, highlights the historical successes of the ESA as well as areas of growth to further protect endangered species against the compounding tolls of the climate crisis on ecosystem balance, habitat fragmentation, and pollution resulting from petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers. The article points out, “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, ESA has played a pivotal role in preventing these extinctions by safeguarding the most critically endangered species within biological communities.” However, OPR has not always kept biodiversity in mind regarding its rulemaking pursuant to ESA on “develop[ing] strategies to reduce harm from various pesticides, including herbicides and insecticides, while focusing on protecting the most vulnerable species.”

These are critical times. The UN Development Programme in announcing its COP15: The Biodiversity Conference in 2022 provided context: “Despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide, and this decline is projected to worsen with business-as-usual. The loss of biodiversity comes at a great cost for human well-being and the global economy.” Advocates have told EPA that meeting ESA mandates will require a major shift away from pesticides, not mitigation that allows continued use despite the availability of certified organic practices.

There are numerous ways to take action to strengthen protections for endangered species against pesticides, including past Actions of the Week. See “Group Says Broader Biological Evaluation of Rodenticides Needed to Protect Endangered Species“ to learn more about biodiversity loss and the role that the Endangered Species Act is designed to play in protecting endangered species from rodenticides. See “Take Action Today: Tell EPA To End Pesticide Dependency, Endangered Species Plan Is Inadequate” to learn about the Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework and our position in advocating for the elimination of petro-chemical pesticide use by 2032. Beyond Pesticides will track the developments and upcoming public comment periods in relation to the recent press release in order to inform advocates on potential actions to call for further strengthening of the ESA Workplan.

Two ways that you can combat the negative impacts of pesticides on wildlife are to (1) implement organic practices for your own lawn and garden, and (2) support organic agriculture, rather than conventional agriculture, which relies on pesticide use. Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and reducing wildlife’s hazardous chemical exposures. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture — from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift — views organic as the solution to these serious environmental threats. You can transition your communities’ public spaces to organic land management by becoming a parks advocate. Sign up today to learn how to protect children, pets, and pollinators in your local parks, playing fields, and other public spaces. 

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

Source: Wall Street Journal

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