EPA Restricts Use of Pesticides That Are Harming Endangered Species

Rare tortoises, squirrels, and prairie dogs will benefit from the decision to regulate the use of eight poisons used to kill burrowing animals.
Utah prairie dog. (Photo: Kevin Doxstater)
Dec 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Dig this: The use of eight particularly nasty pesticides designed to kill burrowing animals on farms will be restricted starting next year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has announced.

The move last week, originally requested by wildlife organizations, will protect four endangered species—the gopher tortoise, the Hualapai Mexican vole, the Mount Graham red squirrel, and the Utah prairie dog—whose ranges overlap with where pesticides are used.

The pesticides contain sodium and potassium nitrate, carbon and carbon dioxide, and sulfur and come in the form of gas cartridges that are thrown into animal burrows. Farmers, rangers, and the federal government often use them to control coyotes, red foxes, skunks, and similar unwanted critters. That puts any other animals that might be using or living near those burrows at risk.

“It’s often hard to tell what animal resides in a burrow or tunnel, so throwing a gas canister in the ground is often a crapshoot,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that submitted data leading to the EPA decision. “Together with Defenders of Wildlife, we identified species that were most at risk from these gas cartridges, including the four that were protected with this action,” Donley said.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to say how many pest animals or endangered species are killed or injured by these gas bombs, because the way they are used also tends to destroy the evidence of their effectiveness. “Since the tunnel is covered before the cartridge is thrown in, death or harm will occur underground, and there would be no access to the carcass,” Donley said, adding that animals dosed with these compounds can asphyxiate or suffer permanent damage to their internal organs.

One of the biggest users of these now-restricted pesticides is a little-known program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services, which kills millions of animals a year to protect farming and ranching interests. Environmentalist groups have often called Wildlife Services a “rogue agency” because of its secretiveness and lack of public oversight.

The new restrictions do not become enforceable until June 2017, well into the incoming Trump administration, which has already made clear its plans to limit the EPA’s effectiveness. That may not affect these new rules, Donley said. “It appears that this is a final action. The EPA has made the changes to the pesticide labels, so that can’t be rolled back.”

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The incoming administration could choose not to enforce those labeling changes, which identify the parts of the country where the pesticides cannot be used, but Donley said he doesn’t think that would be likely. For one thing, he notes, “most of these cartridges are used by Wildlife Services, a government agency. I can’t imagine they would knowingly violate federal law by not adhering to the pesticide label.” If they do, he said, that information would be available through the Freedom of Information Act.

More important, he said, “these restrictions are extremely limited. This action only restricts the use of these products in very small areas of Arizona, Utah, and Florida. Their use is unrestricted everywhere else in the country, and Wildlife Services will still have plenty of other animals to suffocate if that’s what they so choose.”

He added that this is not a broad antipesticide move by the EPA. “These new restrictions are very commonsense and very targeted,” he said. “This is not about getting rid of pesticides; it’s about not using pesticides where there are endangered species that could be harmed.”

That said, Donley hopes this is just the first of many actions the EPA could take to restrict other dangerous pesticides if they have the potential to hurt endangered species. “We hope to see this become commonplace as the EPA begins to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” he said.