DOI Officials Bury Report Showing Hundreds of Endangered Species are Greatly Harmed by Two Pesticides

What happened: In 2017, scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) looked at three widely used pesticides and completed a comprehensive analysis on the potential dangers that these pesticides may present to hundreds of endangered species. Two of the pesticides, chlorpyrifos and malathion, were deemed by the scientists to “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish, and other animals and plants. However, before the scientists could publish their report in November 2017, top officials from the Department of Interior (DOI), including then deputy administrator of the DOI, David Bernhardt, intervened. The DOI officials blocked the release of the report and helped start a new process that would greatly narrow the standard used to determine the risk of a pesticide to an endangered species.

Why it matters: The narrower process that DOI officials have requested to be implemented undermines scientifically valid criteria that have been previously used to determine whether a pesticide poses a threat to an endangered species. In particular, indirect exposure to pesticides is less likely to be considered in the analysis. This narrow approach has been advocated for years by the pesticide industry and represents a significant departure from the current interpretations of federal law. If the US government fails to consider the effects of indirect exposures from pesticides, thousands of species could be placed into further jeopardy.

The Department of Interior (DOI) is suppressing the publication of a scientific report, and arguing that the science is only valid if it follows a process that has been championed by the pesticide industry. The New York Times obtained a set of documents through a Freedom of Information Act request showing that scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had completed a scientific report that was required by federal law, which examined the effect of three common pesticides (chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon) on endangered plant and animal species. The scientists found that two of the pesticides (chlorpyrifos and malathion) were highly detrimental to the survival of over 1,200 species. Officials at the DOI not only blocked the report’s release but are justifying this block by restricting the type of evidence that can be used to judge whether a pesticide can place an endangered species in jeopardy. This new process will almost certainly result in far fewer “jeopardy” findings, which is a conclusion that a certain activity, like the application of a pesticide, can threaten the survivability of an endangered species.

The FWS scientists concluded that chlorpyrifos put 1,399 species in jeopardy; malathion put 1,284 species in jeopardy; and diazinon placed 175 species in jeopardy. Considering that FWS lists 1,663 species as either endangered or threatened in the US, this suggests that two of the pesticides, chlorpyrifos and malathion, have the ability to imperil a large majority of the animal and plant species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Chlorpyrifos has been previously shown to be detrimental to human health, particularly to the neurodevelopment of young children, and the Trump administration has previously refused to ban its use despite the overwhelming evidence of harm to children.

The documents obtained by the New York Times show two themes: that there was repeated contact between the pesticide industry and DOI officials on the matter; and that it was the DOI officials (not the scientists) that stopped the publication of the report and ordered a shift towards an industry-supported process. The pesticide industry’s repeated contact with DOI officials focused on what they deemed to be a methodological flaw with the federal scientists’ approach, that calculating pesticide impacts should be narrowed to only how much pesticide is currently in use. However, FWS scientists disagree with this approach for three reasons: there are few restrictions placed on pesticide labels for when and how to use them, so exposures may be higher than what is reported; since the report’s findings will guide policy for the next 15 years, current usage may not reflect future usage; and that exposures to pesticides can be widespread such that species can be exposed to pesticides indirectly (e.g., contamination of food sources, spread through air/water).

DOI officials appear to have largely agreed with the positions supported by the pesticide industry. Then Deputy Secretary of the DOI, David Bernhardt – who is well known for his substantial conflicts of interest and his ability to sideline science at the DOI – appears to have helped write the official letter stating that the DOI was stopping the release of the report. In this letter, the DOI also ordered a redo of the analysis using the techniques that the pesticide industry has previously championed – using current pesticide usage data and narrowing the analysis only to areas that the pesticides are currently being used. This does not seem to reflect how the FWS scientists viewed the finalized report before the DOI officials intervened. Patrice Ashfield, then a FWS branch chief, wrote that the team of scientists had “really poured their blood, sweat, and tears into getting these drafts completed and they did an outstanding job!”

FWS scientists rarely conclude that a pesticide, or any substantial activity, can imperial an endangered species’ existence. According to one study from 2015, of the 6,829 formal consultations by the FWS on the potential risks of an activity to endangered species, only 2 of them (0.0023%) resulted in a jeopardy finding. When federal scientists raise the alarm about the dangers of a pesticide to wildlife, they do not do so lightly. The intervention of DOI officials to stop scientists from reporting on the dangers of pesticides on endangered species is chilling enough, but their insistence to employ a process pushed by the pesticide industry that is likely to far underestimate the risk of these chemicals will sideline the best available science from these critical decisions. Endangered species rely on science-based federal protection for their very survival. When evidence-based processes that determine how best to help these species are muddled, we risk losing them forever.

Last Revised Date: 

March 28, 2019