Trump Administration Lifts Ban on Use of Dangerous Pesticides at U.S. Wildlife Refuges

Published Sep 4, 2018

The US FWS issued a memo saying that it will roll back its decision to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and pesticide-resistant crops in national wildlife refuges.

What happened: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a memo saying that it will roll back its 2014 decision to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and pesticide-resistant crops in national wildlife refuges.

Why it matters: There is overwhelming scientific evidence showing the devastating harms that neonicotinoid pesticides can have on wildlife and the pesticides are one of the major culprits for the disappearance of bee populations around the world. The policy may even be illegal – assessments were not carried out on the impacts to endangered plants or animals living at or near national wildlife refuges, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Authorizing use of neonicotinoid pesticides in national wildlife refuges goes against the extensive science documenting the harm the pesticides causes to plant and animal populations. Furthermore, such an action stands in contrast to the very reason why the National Wildlife Refuge System was established in the first place – to give current and future generations a chance to enjoy and appreciate the natural world.

When a 2014 ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in national wildlife refuges was first enacted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Jim Kurth, then-Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, stated that the agency was successfully able to “accomplish refuge purposes over the past two years without using genetically modified crops” and that the ability of neonicotinoid pesticides to “potentially affect a broad spectrum of non-target species is not consistent with [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service policy.” However, the agency under the Trump administration disagrees. In early August 2018, FWS Deputy Director Greg Sheehan announced in an internal memo that FWS removed its ban on “the use of genetically modified crops in refuges” and, because “neonicotinoid pesticides… are often used in conjunction with GMO [genetically modified organism] seed,” FWS also removed the ban on the use neonicotinoid pesticides in national wildlife refuges.

There is strong scientific evidence showing that neonicotinoid pesticides are harmful to a wide variety of species. A review of over 800 studies by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that the pesticides are killing important pollinators like bees, hoverflies and butterflies; creatures that live in the soils like bacteria, amoeba, earthworms and insects; and other wildlife like lizards, birds, crabs and shellfish. Neonicotinoid pesticides are infamous for the harmful effects they have on bees. The use of the pesticides have been linked to large-scale population extinctions of wild bee species; “real world” experiments have shown a decrease in the reproduction of honey bee and wild bee populations following exposure to neonicotinoid-treated crops, and meta-analyses have shown that exposure to the pesticides have sub-lethal effects in bees by reducing their performance in a number of areas (see here, and here). In April 2018, the European Union voted on a near-total ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

FWS Deputy Director Greg Sheehan justified the rollback of the 2014 ban by pointing to the fact that some of the land has historically been used to maintain crops to support waterfowl and migratory bird species. Deputy Director Sheehan argued that by allowing the planting of crop seeds that are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, it will ensure that migratory bird species have access to seeds to eat and survive.

However, the scientific literature does not support this reasoning. Previous research on the use of one type of neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, has been linked with the decline of 14 insect-eating bird species in the Netherlands – the authors believed that the birds starved due to a lack of an insect food supply. Migratory seed-eating songbirds have been shown to experience a 17% decline in body weight and an inability to properly orient after exposure to imidacloprid – the authors estimated that just 4 imidacloprid-treated canola seeds per day over 3 days was enough to produce these effects. In December 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released multiple scientific assessments, finding that common neonicotinoid pesticides can kill and harm birds of all sizes. While the type of risks varied depending on type of pesticide, size of bird, and type of seed, the EPA’s risk assessments concluded that birds that ate seeds coated with the pesticides suffered varying levels of acute and chronic toxicity for all the neonicotinoid pesticides that were tested (imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran). One migratory bird species, the mallard duck (a bird that is used as a symbol of FWS' conservation efforts), was listed as the most likely bird species to die or suffer sub-lethal effects when exposed to two types of neonicotinoid pesticides: imidacloprid, when exposed chronically, and thiamethoxam, when exposed acutely or chronically.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a science-based organization that is part of FWS, their mission being, “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” National wildlife refuges are home to a variety of endangered and threatened species, some species of which are known to be harmed by the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, like the red knot, American burying beetle, and Rio Grande silvery minnow. These environmental groups are suing FWS because the agency failed to complete assessments looking at the policy’s impact on endangered and threatened species that live at or near national wildlife refuges, a violation of the Endangered Species Act. By authorizing the use of a class of pesticides that is well documented to cause harm and death to many animals and plants, the agency is shoving aside years of scientific research, is potentially violating the Endangered Species Act, and is going against the core values of the National Wildlife Refuge System.