Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that herbicides harm wildlife

“Restoration” professionals aggressively defend their use of herbicides because it is their preferred method to eradicate non-native plants.  Herbicides are the primary method of killing non-native plants because it is the cheapest method.  When the California Invasive Plant Council conducted a survey of land managers about the methods they use, they learned that 62% of those surveyed reported using herbicides regularly.  Only 6% of land managers said they don’t use herbicides.

The public usually accepts this poisoning of their parks and open spaces because they believe that wildlife benefits from the eradication of non-native plants.  Although there is little scientific evidence that supports that opinion, it is widely considered the conventional wisdom.  Now we have scientific confirmation that wildlife is harmed by the herbicides used to kill non-native vegetation.  That new evidence is the focus of today’s report on the Conservation Sense and Nonsense blog.

EPA Biological Evaluation of Glyphosate and Atrazine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has published the final version of its biological evaluation of the most commonly used herbicide by the managers of our public lands, glyphosate.  EPA reports that glyphosate is “likely to adversely affect” 93% of legally protected endangered and threatened plants and animals.  EPA also published similar findings for atrazine that is available HERE. 

Source: EPA biological evaluation of glyphosate

This evaluation is the result of a long-fought battle with the EPA.  The settlement of a lawsuit brought by Center for Biological Diversity and Pesticide Action Network in 2016 required the EPA to conduct this evaluation.  A draft of the biological evaluation was published about one year ago and the final version one year later confirms the findings reported by the draft version.  Thank you CBD and PAN for your persistence!

Significance of EPA’s biological evaluation

The public tends to believe the law protects all wildlife, but that is not the case. The fact is, legal protection only applies to species designated by US Fish & Wildlife Service as threatened or endangered.  If a project is known to kill wildlife, there is no legal recourse unless the species has been officially designated as endangered or threatened. 

The more herbicide we use, the more likely wildlife is to become endangered and therefore eligible for endangered status.  Monarch butterflies are a case in point.  Their dwindling population is attributed to the widespread use of herbicides on weeds that provide nectar and pollen needed by all pollinators, including monarchs.  Monarchs and bees are also directly harmed by insecticides such as neonicotinoids.    

Hence, the EPA’s responsibility to conduct a scientific evaluation of the effect of herbicides on wildlife applied only to legally protected species.  However, it is essential to understand that the finding applies equally to all plants and animals, whether they are legally protected or not because the physiological processes of all species are similar.  For example, all legally protected amphibians are “likely adversely affected” by glyphosate, according to the EPA’s biological evaluation.  We must assume that all amphibians—whether protected or not—are also adversely affected by glyphosate.

California red-legged frogs are legally protected as an endangered species. Source: USGS
Pacific chorus frogs are not legally protected because they aren’t designated as threatened or endangered. Attribution

What’s to be done about pesticides that harm wildlife?

According to Sustainable Pulse the next official step is:  “The EPA’s evaluations now go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in the final step of the consultation process to determine what on-the-ground conservation measures are needed to minimize harm to these species and ensure these pesticides do not push any endangered species towards extinction” 

Defenders of wildlife and the public lands on which they live should not stop there.  These are the logical consequences of the fact that the most widely used herbicides should not be used on our public lands:

  • Where pesticides have been banned, they are often accompanied by exemptions for ecological “restorations.”  For example, when rodenticides were banned in California in 2020, exemptions were made for projects claiming to “restore” habitat.  When UC Berkeley banned the use of glyphosate on lawns and playing fields, they exempted glyphosate use off-campus to “restore” habitat.  When East Bay Regional Parks banned glyphosate for use in developed areas such as parking lots and picnic areas, they exempted glyphosate use to “restore” habitat.  These exemptions should be rescinded because they are harmful to wildlife living on undeveloped public land.  Wildlife does not live on parking lots and playing fields.  Wildlife lives in undeveloped areas vegetated with both native and non-native plants. 
  • The State of California recently granted a 3-year exemption from CEQA requirements for environmental impact review for projects claiming to “restore” habitat. Available HERE; see (11) This exemption should be revised so that projects that use pesticides are not eligible for exemption from CEQA requirements. 
  • Native plant advocates and “restoration” professionals must quit claiming that projects using herbicides will benefit wildlife, because clearly, they DON’T!

3 thoughts on “Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that herbicides harm wildlife”

  1. We need to ban all herbicides in any public place in San Francisco county. We need to also greatly limit the tree cutting done at all our parks here. Between the herbicides and chain saws the flora and fauna here are suffering. I understand that the Parks & Rec dept. (that control the park system) don’t want people being hit by falling limbs. But rather than only worrying about a law suit they need to also worry about the ecology. The animals depend on a place to hide, food to eat and a happy secure home. Spraying those herbicides and cutting those trees takes those places away from them. The flora and fauna depend on dead trees and brush as well as live trees and they don’t care whether or not they are “native”. Please tell your elected officials that we need to save the overstory and understory and leave SF more natural-Save the trees!
    PS did you ever see a rabbit in the woods in San Francisco? Me neither. But they are native here and are gone-extinct-because of herbicides destroying their blackberry (etc.) patch!

  2. To protect people and pets EBRPD should also BAN glyphosate along trails. It is not obvious right away that the sides of the trail have been ‘treated” This is more dangerous for children because they are closer to the source and often touch while exploring. And especially for dogs who sniff to investigate nature on their walks. Either eliminate pesticides along trails, or post prominent signs warning of the danger!

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