Federal agencies will begin meeting formally to discuss the best way to evaluate the effects of pesticides on endangered species, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Winter Policy Conference Wednesday.

Pruitt put his signature on a Memorandum of Agreement that had already been signed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“The current Endangered Species Act pesticide consultation process is broken,” Pruitt said in a news release. “Today, the Trump Administration is taking action to improve and accelerate this process, harmonize interagency efforts, and create regulatory certainty for America's farmers and ranchers.”

A copy of the MOA had not been released as of this writing, but CropLife America said it “outlines the difficulties with the current (Endangered Species Act) consultation process and proposes an interagency working group” that would support EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) “in meeting their obligations related to the pesticide consultation process.

“Through the MOA, EPA and the services will request (USDA), the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget join the Working Group and that CEQ serves as its chair,” CropLife said in a news release, which it issued with Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE).

“The MOA establishes an action plan to guide the working group to analyze relevant statutes, regulations, and case law, review past ESA pesticide consultation practices to learn lessons from recent experiences, prepare recommendations to improve scientific and policy approaches, and document the approach moving forward,” CropLife and RISE said.

EPA and the services are currently subject to court-approved deadlines to examine the effects of some widely used pesticides on endangered species. For example, EPA is required to complete nationwide effects determinations for atrazine, simazine, propazine and glyphosate by 2020.

A Biological Opinion released by NMFS earlier this month found that chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon harm ESA-listed salmon species and Southern Resident killer whales, or orcas. Among the options to address the impacts: buffer zones, spray reduction technologies and pesticide stewardship programs

Pruitt said EPA will ask the Commerce Department, which includes NMFS, to take another look at that Biological Opinion, taking into usage data on chlorpyrifos that was not considered in its analysis.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the services on the effects of agency actions on ESA-listed species. If it’s determined that the action in question (such as registration or re-registration of a pesticide) is likely to adversely affect a species or its critical habitat, then FWS or NMFS must prescribe ways to avoid that harm.

“It’s encouraging to see that our work with the environmental and farming communities, and the administration has resulted in a positive step towards solving this important and complex issue,” said Jay Vroom, CropLife America president and CEO. “We expect the working group’s recommendations will not only help to ensure that consultation works between agencies to actually protect species, but will also promote government efficiency and effectiveness.”

And NASDA CEO Barb Glenn said that “as co-regulatory partners in environmental protection, we appreciate the administration’s efforts to address some of the challenges on the intersection between ESA and FIFRA. We are encouraged by the steps this administration has taken to promote cooperation between agencies to provide farmers with the tools they need.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, plaintiff in a number of the cases that led to court-mandated consultation deadlines, was critical of the announcement.

“Any working group formed by Pruitt will reflect his love of pesticides and hatred of endangered species, which he seems to view as little more than impediments to industry profits,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director the Center for Biological Diversity. “In Pruitt’s 19-century world view, filthy air, polluted water and dead plants and animals seem to be an acceptable cost of doing business.”

But Defenders of Wildlife’s vice president of endangered species conservation, Jake Li, is hopeful about the effort.

“My sense right now is that we’re optimistic that the MOA moves things in a positive direction,” he said. Li said he has been working with CropLife to identify ways to improve the current consultation process, which poses significant challenges “from a workload standpoint,” given the complex nature of determining how pesticides harm hundreds of species.

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