Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the latest steps to incorporate stakeholder feedback and collaboration with federal partners, ensuring the Agency’s work to protect endangered species from pesticides is practical, flexible, and supports the agricultural community. Assistant Administrator Michal Freedhoff described these steps in a speech to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
“Protecting endangered species and ensuring we have a safe and abundant food supply can go hand in hand,” said Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff. “The steps we’re announcing today are designed to meet this dual obligation of providing the agricultural community with the tools and flexibility they need while ensuring pesticides aren’t harming endangered species.”
When registering pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), EPA must also comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure pesticides do not harm endangered species or their critical habitats. For most of EPA’s history, the Agency has almost never met these duties for its FIFRA decisions. This has resulted in considerable litigation against the Agency, creating uncertainty for farmers and other pesticide users, unnecessary expenses and inefficiencies for EPA, and delays in the protection of endangered species.
In April 2022, EPA released its ESA Workplan, which establishes strategies and actions to adopt those protections while ensuring farmers, public health authorities, and others have access to pesticides. In addition to other actions, EPA proposed a vulnerable species pilot and draft herbicide strategy in 2023. Stakeholders have expressed concerns related to the implementability of these strategies and urged EPA to make needed adjustments before finalizing the approaches.
Today, EPA announced its plans to address key concerns, expand its partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and seek additional stakeholder engagement in the coming months as it continues to address this decades-old challenge of protecting endangered species from pesticide exposure.
Improved Species Maps
In June 2023, EPA announced draft mitigations for 27 species that are part of the Agency’s Vulnerable Species Pilot project, an effort to protect species that are particularly vulnerable to pesticides. EPA received feedback that some of the maps included areas that endangered species do not live in, and that the areas in which pesticide mitigations would be required under the Pilot were thus overly broad.
Today, EPA announced that it will not implement the Vulnerable Species Pilot protections for a species until a more refined map of its habitat is developed. EPA is also announcing that it is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), USDA, the University of Georgia, and other stakeholders to develop maps that better reflect where these species actually live and where protections from pesticides are needed. In April, EPA plans to hold a workshop to facilitate and prioritize the development of these maps, and EPA will also develop guidelines that the public can use to develop and submit refined maps for hundreds of other endangered species.
Credit for using Voluntary USDA Conservation Practices
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps farmers carry out voluntary practices that improve environmental health and quality, many of which also reduce pesticide drift and runoff, which could benefit endangered species. Yesterday, EPA signed an MOU with USDA describing how EPA can include NRCS 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.
Regarding the MOU, Robert Bonnie, USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, said, “Farmers who use strong conservation practices developed by NRCS should be given credit for all of the benefits these practices provide, including reducing the off-site movement of pesticides. NRCS’s programs remain entirely voluntary and producers will not need NRCS approval. Collaboration between USDA and EPA through efforts such as this MOU and additional stakeholder conversations will help to keep safe, effective pest management tools in farmers’ hands.”
This effort responds to suggestions received on EPA’s July 2023 draft herbicide strategy and would also apply to other ESA initiatives. This would provide more flexibility for growers on the type of practices they can use to protect endangered species and ensure EPA’s proposed mitigations can practically be implemented. For example, EPA is already considering which mitigations, if any, are needed on land that is dry or flat or both.
Online Mitigation Menu
Currently, if EPA needs to add new mitigations to pesticide labels, the Agency must update hundreds or thousands of paper labels every time the menu of mitigation options is expanded – a process that can take years. EPA will launch its first online mitigation menu that will allow the Agency to quickly add new mitigation measures options, thus ensuring that growers can use those new options promptly. This year, the Agency plans to release a draft online menu for public comment, and then update that menu based on feedback later this year.
Offsets for Endangered Species Protections
EPA is working with stakeholders to determine how to use “offsets” when avoiding or minimizing pesticide exposure to an endangered species is impossible or impractical. In those situations, it may be possible to offset the impact to the species through activities like funding habitat restoration for the species, contributing to a captive rearing project at a zoo for the species, or other steps to conserve the species. EPA, other federal agencies, and stakeholders are participating in a workshop later 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.