US officials backtrack on pesticide damage to wildlife | Montana News

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – U.S. wildlife officials have reversed their previous conclusion that a widely used and highly toxic pesticide could endanger dozens of endangered plants and animals, after receiving promises from makers of chemicals that they would change product labels for malathion so that it is used more carefully by gardeners, farmers and other consumers.

Federal rules for malathion are being revised in response to longstanding complaints that the pesticide used on mosquitoes, grasshoppers and other insects also kills many rare plants and animals. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Discovery Project last April said malathion could threaten 78 species at risk of extinction and cause less harm to many more.

Wildlife officials reversed their position on the 78 species in a Feb. 28 biological advisory following discussions between malathion makers, wildlife service officials and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to documents reviewed. by the Associated Press.

Wildlife service officials now say malathion could cause limited harm to hundreds of species, but it is unlikely to endanger any of them with extinction as long as the labels which dictate its use are modified. Their conclusion depends on farmers, gardeners and other consumers following instructions on where and when to use the pesticide.

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Conservationists who wanted more restrictions on malathion said the changes would do little to protect species, which in some cases have dwindled to very few individuals. They said the assumption that all malathion users will follow the guidelines is unrealistic and opposed an 18-month delay for the EPA to implement them.

“It’s a huge punt,” said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There is not a single endangered species that will see anything change on the ground because of this biological advisory for at least 18 months, but probably never.”

Manufacturers have agreed to use labels that provide detailed guidelines on when and where malathion should be used to avoid killing wildlife. For example, labels would say not to spray malathion to kill mosquitoes in the middle of the day, when bees and certain other insects are most active and therefore more likely to be inadvertently killed.

Gary Frazer, wildlife service assistant director for Ecological Services, said the measures would “significantly reduce many of the effects of malathion use.”

The makers were largely represented by FMC Corp., a Philadelphia-based agricultural chemical company, according to the wildlife service. FMC spokesman Lars Webborg said the proposed labels and other updates to the malathion guidelines “have been developed using a standard procedure common to all industries.”

He said the company could not speculate if less malathion would be used as a result.

Species that were found endangered last year included birds such as the Mississippi crane and various fish, insects, snails and other animals and plants.

Each year, nearly one million pounds of malathion is used on crops in California, Florida, Washington, Oregon, Ohio and other states, according to the US Geological Survey. Nearly 2 million pounds are used each year in home gardens, for mosquito control and other uses, according to data from a 2018 government survey. The amount used on farmland has fallen by about two-thirds since its peak in 1998, according to the data.

Malathion is considered highly toxic to insects, fish and crustaceans. International health officials have said the chemical is likely carcinogenic to humans.

The EPA said it would post details online that pesticide users should follow, such as no-spray areas in critical wildlife habitat areas. In many cases, these are just guidelines. That includes spraying for mosquito control “where possible” to protect species such as the Houston toad and the Miami tiger beetle, according to government documents.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s analysis marks the first nationwide review of an EPA-regulated pesticide that is up for reapproval, officials said. The EPA said in a statement that the measures would protect threatened and endangered species and also reduce pesticide exposure for other plants and animals.

The examination of the effects of malathion on wildlife has been the subject of a legal agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity. The environmental group first sued the EPA two decades ago for failing to consult with other federal agencies about the risks of pesticides on wildlife and plants, and filed other lawsuits leading to its settlement of 2013 with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2017, the AP reported Dow Chemical’s push for the Trump administration to ignore government studies of a family of pesticides that includes malathion. The lobbying came after the EPA’s initial findings that the pesticides had negative effects on more than 1,000 endangered and threatened species.

Later that year, the Trump administration requested a two-year delay in its review of malathion and other pesticides.

A separate review of the effects of malathion is pending from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency said in a February 25 draft analysis that malathion could endanger 37 species. The draft did not include a review of manufacturers’ planned label changes, which fisheries officials said they would incorporate into their final advice.

Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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