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EPA proposes early mitigations for herbicides

Agency seeks to protect hundreds of endangered species near agricultural fields

by Britt E. Erickson
July 26, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 25


A tractor spraying herbicide on an agricultural field.
Credit: Shutterstock
The US Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to impose early mitigation measures on herbicides to protect hundreds of endangered species.

The US Environmental Protection Agency wants to protect more than 900 endangered species and their critical habitats from herbicide runoff and drift. At the same time, the agency wants to give growers the tools they need to control weeds. In a draft strategy released July 24, the EPA attempts to strike a balance between the two while breaking a logjam in pesticide reviews.

The strategy proposes early mitigation measures for herbicides, which are used significantly more than any other pesticides, including insecticides and fungicides. Such measures would be put in place before the EPA completes required consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which often take more than a decade. Growers can choose from various practices, such as growing vegetation in ditches and capturing runoff in ponds. Less mitigation would be required on flat lands and in states where rainfall is low.

The agency says the proposed strategy is part of its plan to move away from the traditional chemical-by-chemical and species-by-species approach, which is slow and costly, to one that focuses on multiple chemicals and multiple species.

The EPA acknowledges failing to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it comes to reviewing potential impacts of pesticides. As a result, the agency faces increased litigation, and farmers face uncertainty about their future ability to use many pesticides.

“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% of EPA’s ESA obligations,” the agency says in the draft strategy.

“Ensuring safe use of herbicides is an important part of EPA’s mission to protect the environment,” Jake Li, deputy assistant administrator for pesticide programs at the EPA, says in a statement. “This strategy reflects one of our biggest steps to support farmers and other herbicide users with tools for managing weeds, while accelerating EPA’s ability to protect many endangered species that live near agricultural areas.”

The EPA is accepting comments on the draft strategy until Sept. 22.



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