Tag Archive | "Pesticides"


New Report on Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Milestone but Much Work Remains

On Tuesday, April 30th, the National Research Council will release a highly anticipated study on pesticides and endangered species.  The study is a major milestone toward resolving the clash over how to evaluate the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  To date, the U.S. EPA has disagreed with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about which scientific methods and assumptions to use when completing these evaluations.

The study will address six key areas of scientific disagreement or lack of consensus among the agencies.  But it will not address any related policy questions, which are an equally important source of disagreement.  To think that the study will resolve the disagreements between the Services and EPA is to overlook the distinction between a science question and a policy question.

Here is one example of this distinction.  To determine the effects of a pesticide on an endangered species, the EPA relies on laboratory tests on surrogate species.  For example, EPA’s guidance document identifies bobwhite quail and ducks as a surrogate for endangered reptiles.  Likewise, minnow and sunfish are surrogates for endangered amphibians.  But of course, California tiger salamanders are not exactly like sunfish, and bog turtles are not exactly like ducks.  When you extrapolate data on ducks to turtles, you must make a lot of assumptions about how ducks are like (and unlike) turtles.  You will never have perfect information about the relationship between the two animals and their response to pesticides.  As a result, you will have scientific uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty is one of the topics the NRC study will cover.  Specifically, it will evaluate the use of “uncertainty factors” (also known as safety factors) to account for incomplete data when extrapolating from surrogate species to endangered species.  Think of uncertainty factors as a safety margin.  If you assume that an endangered species is 100 times more sensitive to a chemical than is its corresponding surrogate species, then you might use an uncertainty factor of 100.  So if your surrogate species does not show any significant adverse effects up to 10 mg/kg of exposure from a chemical, then you would divide that value by 100 to get 0.01 mg/kg for the endangered species.

But why use a safety factor of 100?  Why not 200, or 38, or 4, or zero?  For many endangered species, we do not know the extent to which they are more sensitive than surrogate species to any particular pesticide.  So we need to make assumptions about how protective we are of endangered species.  A safety factor of 100,000 would be very protective, while a safety factor of zero would offer no protection.  This question of how protective we should be is a policy question, not a science question.  Science can recommend methods for addressing uncertainty (safety factors are not the only method, and some would argue they are not the best).  But science cannot tell us whether we “should” use a safety factor of 0, 10, 100, or 10,000.  The Services and EPA must make those decisions based on their interpretations of the ESA and FIFRA.  In fact, the NRC made a similar observation in its 1995 study titled “Science and the Endangered Species Act.”  There, it noted that “[e]ven though estimates of risk are grounded in scientific information, those implementing the [ESA] often make value judgments when making decisions about listing, jeopardy, etc.”  Thus, the NRC explained, “science by itself is not sufficient input to policy decisions, apart from the objectives and values it serves.”

Unfortunately, agencies are often very reluctant to acknowledge that they are making these value and policy judgments every day.  But unless they do so, we will never fix the current debacle over pesticides and endangered species.  We will never agree on how much risk of harming an endangered species is acceptable under the ESA and FIFRA.  And we will continue quarrelling.  This is why, when I presented at the CropLife America and RISE Spring Conference last week, I emphasized the need for both the Services and EPA to create a framework that clearly describes how they will address risk and uncertainty when evaluating the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  Let’s hope the NRC study motivates the agencies to do so.

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Additional information on a way forward for pesticides and endangered species.



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Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Small Step Forward

Earlier this week, four federal agencies released a report on how they intend to improve the pesticide registration and consultation processes.  This is a small but noteworthy step toward resolving the debacle over how to ensure that pesticides use complies with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  To date, the story of pesticides and endangered species is mostly one of head on collisions, culminating in litigation by both environmental groups and pesticide registrants.  Recently, however, the agencies responsible for implementing federal pesticide and endangered species laws have attempted to work collaboratively to resolve some of their differences.  This new report is one such effort.

The report was issued by the U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, all of which play a role in administering the ESA and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which is the federal law that regulates the registration and use of pesticides.  The report describes various process improvements intended to achieve three goals: (1) earlier stakeholder involvement when pesticides are evaluated for registration or re-registration under FIFRA; (2) earlier adoption of conservation measures to reduce the adverse impacts of pesticides on endangered species; and (3) an ESA consultation process that is more focused and efficient because it already incorporates risk-reduction measures.

Defenders believe these are laudable goals, as explained in our comment letter on a draft of the report from October 2012.  Our letter also described how the agencies could improve the draft report.  Unfortunately many of these recommendations were not adopted.  Here are two unresolved issues.

First, EPA will hold focus group meetings to better define the intended uses of pesticides as early as feasible and incorporate early risk reduction measures to minimize the adverse impacts of pesticides on wildlife.  We encouraged EPA to allow all interested members of the public to participate in these meetings.  The final report, however, does not explicitly indicate that this will happen, instead focusing on “affected registrants and possibly other stakeholders via invitation.”  While we realize that registrants and users are in the best position to provide information to EPA at this early stage of the registration process, it remains unclear how the goal of “public participation and transparency” is advanced when participation appears limited by default.  Non-registrants may have important contributions, particularly on ways to “adopt risk reduction measures before registration review beings.”

Second, the report describes how the agencies will make greater use of informal consultation in evaluating the risk of pesticides to endangered species.  The final report, however, lacks clarity on how the agencies will work together to accomplish this goal.  For example, the proposal does not specifically discuss the role of EPA’s 2004 Ecological Risk Assessment Process, which guides the agency’s biological effects determinations for listed species.  As a result, it is unclear how that process would fit within the process improvements described in the report.

On the other hand, we are pleased to see some of our comments addressed in the final report.  For example, we noted that it was legally inaccurate for the draft report to claim that “Service regulations require that [reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs)] be both technologically and economically feasible to the action agency and the applicant.”  This sentence implies that both the action agency and the applicant must agree to the feasibility of any RPAs, a requirement that is not explicitly supported by either the Services regulations at 50 C.F.R. §402.14(g) or the Section 7 Consultation Handbook.  The final report contains language that fixes this technicality.

Looking ahead, the four agencies must resolve numerous science and non-science issues if they are to fix the problems with the current pesticide registration and consultation processes.  The National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a study in a few weeks recommending how the agencies can address six science questions that have plagued them for decades.  But science alone cannot save the day.  As explained in my book chapter on this topic, the agencies must also address risk-tolerance, funding, and other issues that are fundamental to ensuring that pesticide are used in a manner that does not unduly harming endangered species.



Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.