Strategy aims to increase efficiencies while supporting farmers, herbicide users with continued use of important pesticide tools.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the draft Herbicide Strategy for public comment, a major milestone in the Agency’s work to protect federally endangered and threatened (listed) species from conventional agricultural herbicides. The Strategy describes proposed early mitigations for more than 900 listed species and designated critical habitats to reduce potential impacts from the agricultural use of these herbicides while helping to ensure the continued availability of these important pesticide tools.
“Ensuring safe use of herbicides is an important part of EPA’s mission to protect the environment,” said Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pesticide Programs for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Jake Li. “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 Strategy is part of EPA’s ongoing efforts to develop a multichemical, multispecies approach toward meeting its obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). EPA’s traditional chemical-by-chemical, species-by-species approach to meeting these obligations is slow and costly. As a result, EPA has completed its ESA obligations for less than 5% of its actions, creating legal vulnerabilities for the Agency, increased litigation, and uncertainty for farmers and other pesticide users about their continued ability to use many pesticides. The Strategy — which is primarily designed to provide early mitigations that minimize impacts to over 900 listed species — is one of EPA’s most significant proposals to help overcome these challenges.
EPA focused the Strategy on agricultural crop uses in the lower 48 states because hundreds of millions of pounds of herbicides (and plant growth regulators) are applied each year, which is substantially more than for non-agricultural uses of herbicides and for other pesticide classes (e.g., insecticides, fungicides). Additionally, hundreds of listed species in the lower 48 states live in habitats adjacent to agricultural areas. The proposed mitigations in the Strategy would address the most common ways that conventional agricultural herbicides might impact these listed species. More specifically, EPA developed potential mitigation options for conventional agricultural herbicides to reduce pesticide transport via spray drift and runoff/erosion that could result in exposure to listed plants and listed animals that depend on plants.
EPA expects that the Strategy will increase the efficiency of future ESA consultations on herbicides with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which has authority over most listed species that could benefit from the proposed mitigations. Under the Strategy, EPA proposes to identify and begin mitigating for potential impacts even before EPA completes ESA consultations. These early mitigations should expedite EPA’s ability to fully comply with the ESA by reducing impacts to listed species before EPA conducts most of its ESA analysis. Adopting mitigations earlier will also allow EPA and FWS to use their resources more efficiently in ESA consultations.
The Strategy’s proposed mitigations to reduce spray drift, runoff, and erosion and thereby reduce the potential exposure reflect practices that can be readily implemented by growers and identified by pesticide applicators and that provide flexibility for growers to select the mitigations that work best for them. The Strategy also gives credit to landowners who are already implementing certain measures to reduce pesticide runoff. For example, existing vegetated ditches and water retention ponds will qualify for credits that reduce the need for additional mitigation. Similarly, the Strategy would require less mitigation on flat lands, which are less prone to runoff, and in many western states, which typically experience less rain to carry pesticides off fields. The Strategy also describes how the Agency could add other mitigation practices to the menu of mitigation options in the future, particularly to incorporate emerging technology or new information on the effectiveness of specific practices.
Draft Herbicide Framework Document
The draft framework document titled, “Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework to Reduce Exposure of Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Species and Designated Critical Habitats from the Use of Conventional Agricultural Herbicides” is 97 pages long and includes a discussion of both the proposed scope of the Herbicide Strategy and the proposed decision framework to determine the level of mitigation needed for a particular conventional agricultural herbicide. The draft framework document also includes examples of how the proposed herbicide mitigation would apply to some of the herbicides for which EPA has conducted case studies as well as EPA's proposed implementation plan.
Some of the accompanying documents are quite lengthy. The “Herbicide Strategy Case Study Summary and Process” is 666 pages! Coincidence on the number? I’m not sure. I haven’t made it through it all yet. The primary thing I gathered from perusing through the spreadsheet files was that managing these complexities must be a nightmare. The document, “Application of EPA’s Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework Through Scenarios that Represent Crop Production Systems” is only 17 pages long and includes possible scenarios. Examples 1 and 2 would be particularly fitting for Illinois corn and soybean producers. These are shared to help producers better understand how these mitigation practices may be used.
In its ESA Workplan and ESA Workplan Update, EPA outlined this and other ESA initiatives to develop early mitigations that provide listed species with practical protections from pesticides. The Strategy complements those other initiatives, such as targeted mitigations for listed species particularly vulnerable to pesticides and Interim Ecological Mitigations that EPA has begun incorporating under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The draft framework describes how EPA would apply the mitigations in the Strategy compared to mitigations in the other initiatives.
What can you do? Submit comments! Learn more!
The draft herbicide framework and accompanying documents are available in docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2023-0365 for public comment for 60 days. Comments are due September 22, 2023. Agricultural pesticide users are encouraged to learn about EPA’s plan and to start thinking about how these mitigation measures could apply to herbicide use in their operation. While extensive recordkeeping is not currently required for the mitigation factors described in the strategy, it is highly recommended that users begin thinking about how to incorporate these new elements into their current record systems. If you are applying according to label directions, proper records can only assist your defense should you need it. To help guide you, watch for shared comments from professional organizations such as the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA). In April, a WSSA press release linked their comments to EPA and encouraged growers to act now to understand the impact of ESA’s new compliance initiatives. One good suggestion they offered to growers is to learn how to use EPA’s Bulletins Live! Two which is where important application instructions will be found.
EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs will present a webinar on this draft herbicide Strategy on August 10th at Noon Central Time. EPA plans to walk through the framework and take questions from grower groups and other stakeholders. Register today. Questions may be submitted in advance of the webinar by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about EPA’s comprehensive ESA workplan Check out our article, “Change Coming to How EPA Protects Endangered Species from Pesticides – Feedback Needed” in the November/December 2022 issue of this newsletter. Proposed mitigation measures are discussed in more general terms in this comprehensive workplan. Please note that the comment period discussed there has ended.
Visit EPA’s website to learn more about how EPA’s pesticide program is protecting endangered species.
Adapted slightly from an EPA press release, “EPA Releases Draft Strategy to Better Protect Endangered Species from Herbicide Use” and related EPA documents.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michelle Wiesbrook provides subject matter expertise and training in pesticide safety with an emphasis on horticultural weed science. She serves as the Illinois Pesticide Review newsletter editor, collecting and organizing material; and co-coordinates social media information for the PSEP program and ensures its timely publication.