Court settlement may ultimately help protect endangered amphibians
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — In a classic case of government do-nothingism, federal agencies have known for years that pesticides are killing rare California frogs — but have failed to act to protect the amphibians from the poisons.
But that should change soon, as a federal court this week approved a deal that requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare detailed environmental studies on the effects of seven common pesticides: Glyphosate, malathion, simazine, pendimethalin, permethrin, methomyl and myclobutanil.
The studies, called biological opinions in government jargon, will evaluate and disclose how the use of those chemicals affects California’s red-legged frogs when they’re used in and near the frog’s aquatic and upland habitats.
Recent studies have shown that pesticide exposure suppresses amphibian immune systems, making the animals more susceptible to other environmental stressors, as well as the deadly chytrid fungus. A U.S. Geological Survey study recently found that frogs all along the Sierra Nevada range are tainted by pesticides.
“We’re hopeful the analysis required by this agreement will stop the use of harmful pesticide in the red-legged frog’s most vulnerable habitats and open the door to its recovery,” said Justin Augustine, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s long overdue.”
Way back in 2006, a previous settlement required the EPA to assess pesticide impacts on red-legged frogs and to then formally consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The EPA’s assessments found that widespread use of pesticides is likely harming red-legged frogs and the court ordered temporary pesticide use restrictions that remain in effect today.
Despite the EPA’s findings, however, the Service and EPA failed to complete the required consultation, resulting in the litigation by the Center that culminated in this week’s settlement.
“Because they’re so sensitive to chemical contaminants, frogs are an important barometer of the health of our ecosystems,” said Augustine. “Pesticides found in red-legged frog habitat can also contaminate our drinking water, food, homes and schools, posing a disturbing health risk.”
Once abundant throughout California and made famous in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” California red-legged frogs were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1996. Their numbers have declined more than 90 percent; the species is no longer found in 70 percent of its former range. The most severe declines have been observed in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of California’s central valley, where frogs are exposed to pesticides from the intensely agricultural San Joaquin valley.
More than 200 million pounds of pesticides are applied each year in California; for most of these chemicals, governmental agencies have not evaluated impacts on wildlife as required under the Endangered Species Act.
Amphibians are declining at alarming rates around the globe and scientists believe pesticides may be partly to blame. Agricultural pesticides introduced into wetlands, ponds and streams are particularly harmful to frogs, whose permeable skins readily absorb toxins from their aquatic environments.
The pesticides of concern for red-legged frogs include several controversial chemicals that public health, sustainable-farming, farmworker and conservation groups advocate banning due to unacceptable hazards to humans and wildlife. For example, simazine — one of the pesticides covered by today’s settlement — is a known endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disrupters may interfere with natural hormone functions, damage reproductive function and offspring and cause developmental, neurological and immune problems in wildlife and humans.
The Endangered Species Act requires the EPA to consult with federal wildlife agencies to ensure that the agency avoids authorizing pesticide uses that jeopardize endangered species. If the Fish and Wildlife Service determines EPA registration of a pesticide is likely to harm listed species, it may specify use restrictions to avoid adverse effects. Conservation groups, including the Center, have filed a series of lawsuits attempting to force such consultations, which have resulted in restrictions on pesticide use near endangered species habitats.
In June 2013 the Center and Pesticide Action Network filed an amended complaint in their ongoing efforts to protect the nation’s most vulnerable wildlife from toxic pesticides. The lawsuit seeks to compel the EPA to evaluate the impacts of dozens of pesticides known to be toxic to more than 100 endangered and threatened species, including Florida panthers, California condors, piping plovers, black-footed ferrets, arroyo toads, Indiana bats and Alabama sturgeon. Documents from the Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA, as well as peer-reviewed scientific studies, indicate that these species are harmed by the pesticides.