Farm bill will improve how Endangered Species Act evaluates pesticides

Legislative victories for wildlife are rare these days.  Even rarer is legislation that benefits both wildlife and industry.  That’s why I’m pleased to report that the farm bill Congress just passed includes a section that’ll improve our nation’s ability to reconcile endangered species conservation with agriculture and mosquito control.  Section 10115, titled “FIFRA Interagency Working Group,” is a major milestone in a decades-old struggle over how best to protect endangered species from pesticides.   

A persistent myth is that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was responsible for the ban on DDT and has restricted the use of many other chemicals.  This has never been true.  The vast majority of pesticides used today have never been evaluated under the ESA for their potential effects on endangered species. Since the 1980s, the federal government has tried many times to evaluate those effects, but their efforts were usually mired in politics, litigation, budget shortfalls, and Congressional attempts to exempt pesticides from ESA restrictions as early as 1987.  The situation often seemed hopeless, with some experts arguing that the ESA simply couldn’t handle the complexity and workload of evaluating how each of thousands of pesticides could affect each of hundreds of endangered species.  All the while, many pesticides continued to be used without restrictions tailored to endangered species.

But starting around 2011, the federal government took several important steps to improve how the ESA evaluates pesticides.  They sought science advice from the National Academies of Science.  They developed quantitative standards for when pesticides require ESA review.  They held five workshops to seek public input on improving the ESA process.  And in January of this year, they signed an agreement that created an interagency working group to develop recommendations on improving the process.  Through this agreement, the federal government threw its weight behind reforming the process.  Three months later, I worked with the agrochemical industry to write a letter describing recommendations the working group should consider.  This was the first letter ever signed by both conservationists and industry on harmonizing pesticide use with endangered species protections.

That dialogue gave rise to discussions that I had earlier this year with industry and other conservation groups about whether the 2018 farm bill could improve ESA pesticide reviews.  We liked the January agreement and thought it would be more enduring if it were adopted as law, so we promoted the idea of doing that.  

Section 10115 of the farm bill is the outcome.  It codifies the January agreement, but includes additional provisions to encourage four agencies—EPA, Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, and Department of Agriculture—to make meaningful and timely improvements to the ESA pesticide review process.  For example, the section will require the agencies to report to Congress, every six months, on their progress in improving the ESA process.  The agencies must also regularly describe how much the process has improved, thus helping Congress determine which recommendations are most effective. 

The idea is that Congressional oversight will encourage the agencies to take seriously their new mandate to constantly improve the ESA pesticide process.  If all goes as planned, every progress report will show tangible improvements the agencies have made, along with any remaining disagreements among the agencies.  What does success look like on the ground?  Farmers, mosquito control agencies, and homeowners who use pesticides do so in ways that don’t jeopardize endangered species conservation.  Pesticide manufacturers fund projects to restore wildlife habitat and reduce pesticide runoff into ponds and streams.  And species—from the monarch butterfly to the eastern prairie fringed orchid to theTopeka shiner—are able to thrive in America’s agricultural landscapes.

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