On November 16, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it released an Endangered Species Act (ESA) Workplan Update (Workplan Update) that outlines major steps to increase protections for wildlife and regulatory certainty for pesticide users. The Workplan Update details how EPA will pursue protections for nontarget species, including federally listed endangered and threatened (i.e., listed) species, earlier in the process for pesticide registration review and other Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) actions. According to EPA, these early protections will help EPA comply with the ESA, thus reducing its legal vulnerability, providing farmers with more predictable access to pesticides, and simplifying the ESA-FIFRA process that, left unchanged, creates both significant litigation risk and a workload far exceeding what EPA has the resources to handle.
EPA states this update is a follow-up to EPA’s April 2022 ESA Workplan that addresses the complexity of meeting its ESA obligations for thousands of FIFRA actions annually. The ESA Workplan prioritizes certain FIFRA actions for ESA compliance, outlines how EPA will pursue early mitigation for listed species under FIFRA, and describes directions for expediting and simplifying the current pesticide consultation process.
As part of registering new pesticides or reevaluating pesticides during registration review, EPA has a responsibility under the ESA to ensure certain pesticide registrations do not jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or adversely modify their designated critical habitats. EPA states that it has seen in the past few decades an increase in litigation due to EPA’s failure to meet its ESA obligations when taking FIFRA actions. Over the next six years, existing court-enforceable deadlines will require EPA to complete ESA reviews for 18 pesticides -- the most EPA estimates it can handle during this period based on its current capacity and processes. Ongoing litigation and settlement discussions for other lawsuits cover dozens of additional pesticides and will likely fill the EPA’s ESA workload well beyond 2030. According to EPA, if its ESA efforts continue at this pace, a future court may decide to curtail drastically pesticide use until EPA meets its obligations. EPA believes this situation would be unsustainable and legally tenuous and provide inadequate protection for listed species and create regulatory uncertainty for farmers and other pesticide users.
The Workplan Update is EPA’s first update to the ESA Workplan and covers four main goals:
- Describes EPA’s overall approach to mitigating ecological risks in registration review, which includes prioritization of registration review cases based on opportunities to reduce a pesticide’s risk to human health or the environment.
- Proposes a menu of FIFRA Interim Ecological Mitigation measures that EPA will draw from for many future conventional and biological pesticide registration and registration review actions to protect nontarget species. For each FIFRA action, EPA will consider this menu and propose, based on the risks and benefits of the particular pesticide, which specific measures to include on the pesticide label.
- Proposes label language to expand the use of online endangered species protection bulletins to implement geographically specific mitigation measures for individual listed species. These measures are designed to focus protections only in specific needed areas, thus minimizing impacts to agriculture. Where needed, EPA may develop these measures to complement the generic FIFRA ecological mitigation described above.
- Describes current and future programmatic initiatives with other federal agencies to prioritize mitigation for listed species that are particularly vulnerable to pesticides and to improve the efficiency and timeliness of the ESA-FIFRA process.
The first strategy described in EPA’s ESA Workplan is to “meet ESA obligations for FIFRA actions.” EPA states as part of its work to execute this strategy, it has identified a menu of Interim Ecological Mitigation measures it will use as a starting point to address pesticide risks to nontarget species during registration and registration review.
The menu of Interim Ecological Mitigation will include measures to reduce pesticide spray drift and pesticide runoff and will be considered as part of EPA’s upcoming proposed interim registration review decisions. While EPA intends for this set of Interim Ecological Mitigation measures to apply widely to many pesticides, EPA will consider the menu of options for any given pesticide depending on the level of risk that it poses to species and the exposure route.
EPA anticipates that this approach will more efficiently establish protections for nontarget species, including listed species, and standardize the protections across similar pesticides, in contrast to identifying mitigation measures pesticide by pesticide or species by species, as EPA has typically done in the past.
EPA states it will also work with registrants to add language on pesticide incident reporting, advisory language to protect insect pollinators, and language to most outdoor-use pesticide labels that directs users to reference Bulletins Live! Two, a website where pesticide users can find endangered species protection bulletins. These bulletins describe geographically specific use limitations to protect threatened and endangered species and their designated critical habitat.
EPA expects that once consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service is completed for any given outdoor-use pesticide, endangered species protection bulletins may be necessary for at least one listed species.
EPA also expects that working with registrants proactively to add the reference to Bulletins Live! Two to pesticide labels in advance of consultation will ultimately save EPA, state partners, and registrants time and resources by minimizing the number of amendments to labels.
The ESA Workplan Update also describes initiatives that, according to EPA, will help it and other federal agencies improve approaches to mitigation under the ESA and improve the interagency consultation process outlined in the ESA Workplan. These initiatives include EPA’s work to identify ESA mitigation measures for pilot species, incorporate early ESA mitigation measures for groups of pesticides (e.g., herbicides), and develop region-specific ESA mitigations.
Comments on the proposed set of interim mitigation measures and the proposed revisions to label language included in the Workplan Update appendix are due on or before January 30, 2023. Comments can be submitted at EPA-HQ-OPP-2022-0908.
This next phase of the ESA Workplan provides more detail about how EPA plans to impose various mitigation measures to meet its ESA obligations when registering a pesticide. The most favorable view of what EPA has presented is that it continues the march toward ESA compliance, which is long overdue, and provides more detail about the kinds of mitigation approaches it will place on pesticide labels to meet ESA requirements. The less favorable view here is that EPA has outlined a number of “off the shelf” mitigation options (buffers to reduce pesticide drift and water runoff), and EPA might impose such conditions in many instances where more careful analysis of usage data and site- or use-specific considerations might lessen the areas where such mitigation measures are needed.
EPA has stated previously as part of its earlier Workplan document, issued in April 2022, that using the present approaches EPA would complete only 5 percent of the ESA required reviews in about 18 years -- implying that the current approach would take about 360 years to complete. This next iteration of the Workplan, describing “early mitigation” strategies, is designed to reduce this unacceptable timeframe (360 years), but is likely to lead to fears among some stakeholders that in a “rush” to complete this work, EPA will make overly conservative label restrictions and reduce availability of the pesticide without increased species protections. Such concerns raise immediate ancillary concerns about stakeholder involvement in decision-making, compliance with what might be complicated label requirements, and enforcement of what is already typically a long list of label requirements for many current products. An example of such issues: one mitigation option example discussed is “do not use when rain is expected in the next 48 hours” -- which could raise issues concerning what or how compliance might be proven or enforced.
Again, to be sure, this next document about how EPA plans to make significant progress in meeting its ESA obligations continues the effort to convince courts that it is meeting its ESA obligations. As such, it represents a large step forward where in the past EPA was left with little progress or plans to present in court as part of litigation over ESA compliance. As it continues to reveal its plans and options, however, stakeholders will need to follow closely and consider the possible impacts of the Workplan and the resulting label proposals to follow.