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EPA overhauls pesticide biological evaluations

Agency’s approach for assessing risks to endangered species relies on real-world data

by Britt E. Erickson
March 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 11


San Joaquin kit fox close up.
Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
The San Joaquin kit fox and many other endangered species are likely to be adversely affected by the insecticides carbaryl and methomyl, according to draft assessments by the US EPA.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is changing how it evaluates the risks of pesticides to endangered species. Rather than rely on estimates of pesticide use based on maximum-allowed values, the agency will use actual data that reflect how much of a given pesticide has been applied in a particular area.

Such data are not available for all areas, however. Environmental groups claim that the updated method, released March 12, will underestimate risks to endangered species because it excludes large areas where there are data gaps. They also argue that the approach ignores the downstream effects of pesticides that run off into waterways and indirect effects, such as the loss of insect pollinators that feed on endangered plants.

In contrast, the pesticide industry welcomes the new approach. “Pesticide usage data is an important part of this revised method and represents a major step forward by EPA to use the best scientific and commercial data available,” Chris Novak, CEO of CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, says in a statement.

The EPA’s action comes after numerous lawsuits against the agency and delays in registering pesticides because of concerns about risks to endangered species. After years of discussions, the EPA adopted an interim approach in 2015 to streamline the process. But the Trump administration abandoned the interim method in 2017. The EPA claims that the new approach, which it first proposed in June 2019, is more protective of endangered species.

The agency has already used the new method to evaluate the risks of two carbamate insecticides—carbaryl and methomyl. The evaluations show that each of them is likely to harm more than 1,000 endangered species.

Even so, the EPA ignores the full range of impacts of the pesticides to endangered species, says the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “It’s painfully clear that pesticides have a devastating effect on some of our most vulnerable species, and the Trump administration is intent on thwarting urgently needed protections,” Lori Ann Burd, the center’s environmental health director, says in a statement.



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