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EPA policy and proposals: Vulnerable Species Pilot Program

Agency tailors mitigations to protect 27 highly vulnerable species.

Whitney Haigwood

February 9, 2024

7 Min Read
Sunrise on an early season cotton field with a ground rig spraying the crop.
The EPA’s Vulnerable Species Pilot Program is geographically specific, aimed at protecting endangered species considered highly vulnerable to pesticide exposure. While 27 species made the piloted list, the agency plans to expand the VSP program to include additional species – meaning more targeted mitigation measures are on the horizon. Whitney Haigwood

At a Glance

  • The Vulnerable Species Project (VSP) consists of early mitigations to avoid or reduce spray drift and runoff.
  • Farmers and pesticide applicators should be aware of restrictions targeted at Pesticide Use Limitation Areas (PULAs).
  • Public comment for the VSP has closed, and the EPA plans to provide further updates by fall of 2024.

This is an ongoing series on policy proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to bring its ESA-FIFRA process into compliance. 

Following the release of its pesticide workplan in April 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designed and drafted several strategies aimed at meeting obligations to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).  

One of those strategies is the Vulnerable Species Project (VSP), a piloted project consisting of mitigation measures tailored to protect 27 different endangered species. This list of species is considered by the EPA to be highly vulnerable to pesticide exposure, and mitigations are specifically targeted at designated critical habitats across the U.S. 

Details of the VSP framework were released in a draft white paper on June 22, 2023, and opened for public comment. The EPA has since provided an update based on comments received, and another VSP update is expected later in 2024. 

Once finalized, farmers and pesticide applicators will be responsible for following VSP regulations – leaving many to wonder how the requirements will impact agricultural pesticide applications in their region. 

To get a better understanding of the VSP, Farm Press took a deep dive into resources provided by the EPA, including a webinar hosted by the USDA, and followed up with the National Ag Law Center for a recent update. 

Related:EPA policy and proposals: 4 fundamentals of the ESA-FIFRA process

How were the vulnerable species selected?  

Shortly after the VSP white paper was released, EPA spokespersons discussed the project in a public webinar hosted by the USDA. Jake Li, deputy assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, kicked off the session with an overview.  

Li said, “Even though the VSP only covers 27 of the nearly 1,700 endangered listed species, it is a unique and vital strategy because it focuses on geographically specific mitigation measures that reflect the conservation needs of each of the pilot species.” 

He added that stakeholders have suggested this tangible mitigation for years, and the VSP is intended to demonstrate how the EPA can tailor protections to species while minimizing regulatory impacts to pesticide users.  

Jerret Fowler, acting senior scientist in the Environmental Fate and Effects Division at the Office of Pesticide Programs noted that the VSP was developed to expedite and simplify the EPA’s compliance to the ESA-FIFRA process. 

“We are doing this for the listed species that need protection, for the benefit of farmers and others who rely on pesticides, and for the benefit of our Agency that needs to manage our burgeoning workload,” Fowler explained. 

Related:Endangered Species Act threatens pesticide use

To select the 27 species, the EPA looked at criteria like vulnerability classifications from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the boundaries and size of critical habitats, and stressors specifically caused by pesticide exposure. This resulted in a pilot list of both terrestrial and aquatic species that includes plants, insects, invertebrates, fish, mammals, and birds.  

Fowler said, “These species span across the entire continental U.S. with most having small-pocketed, well-defined ranges. The limited locations are important because it gives us focused and well-defined areas for mitigations.” 

What mitigations are required? 

Proposed VSP mitigations apply to most outdoor and non-residential uses of conventional herbicides, insecticides, insect growth regulators, fungicides, and miticides. These mitigations are targeted at Pesticide Use Limitation Areas (PULAs) of the 27 vulnerable species and divided into three general categories: avoidance, spray drift minimization, and runoff minimization. 

Avoidance mitigations prohibit certain pesticide applications in PULAs, depending on the species and the chemical impact, and Fowler noted that exemptions to these avoidance mitigations may be granted through the FWS field offices. 

For spray drift minimization, mitigations include adjusting application methods and droplet sizes along with buffer requirements. Fowler noted that the EPA has proposed larger buffer distances for the terrestrial insects and plant species on the piloted VSP list due to increased susceptibility of stressors caused by pesticides. 

For runoff minimization, pesticide applicators will follow an existing menu of mitigations developed by the EPA to reduce potential effects of pesticide runoff. To comply with the VSP, four options from the runoff mitigation menu must be implemented before applying pesticides in a designated PULA.  

Some of the runoff minimization mitigations include things like a 40% rate reduction, vegetative filter strips, cover crops, residue and tillage management, grassed waterways, and application in fields with less than a 2% slope. 

In addition, timing restrictions are part of the VSP proposal to protect plant species and their pollinators when plants are in bloom.  

Fowler added that the EPA is continuing to gather input from FWS experts on proposed runoff mitigations with the goal of syncing the mitigation menu across ESA-FIFRA workplan efforts. 

“To the extent possible, EPA expects to align the runoff mitigation menu options with the Herbicide Strategy, FIFRA Interim Ecological Mitigations, and any other future efforts using the mitigation menu,” Fowler said. 

It should also be mentioned that VSP exemptions are proposed for fields already enrolled in conservation programs to reduce pesticide runoff.  

Fowler said, “Our proposal is that if applicators have a plan in place with an organization like NRCS that is already outlining runoff mitigations that are best suited for their field, that plan would stand in place of our proposed mitigations.” 

Furthermore, Fowler emphasized that rodenticides and avicides are not included in the draft VSP, as those will each have their own engendered species plans due to different pathways of exposure. 

Where can you find VSP restrictions? 

Once finalized, VSP mitigation language will be added to pesticide product labels, directing applicators to check the EPA’s website, Bulletins Live! Two (BLT) for relevant regulatory requirements.  

Mitigations can be searched on the BLT website by entering the pesticide treatment location, the month and year of the intended pesticide application, and the EPA registration number of the product planned to apply. 

The EPA understands that outreach and training are necessary for pesticide applicators to comply with VSP requirements, and as an informational resource, the agency has developed a series of story maps for each of the listed vulnerable and endangered species. 

These story map tools are available on the EPA’s pilot projects webpage titled: Implementing EPA’s Workplan to Protect Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides. A green box on the right side of the webpage invites users to explore the resources. 

There, you can find a map of the U.S. with pinned locations of the 27 vulnerable species in addition to links with specific mitigations, designated critical habitats, and PULAs for each individual species. 

Fowler stressed that these story maps are for informational purposes only, and pesticide applicators are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this information along with the regulatory information posted to BLT website. 

What can we expect going forward? 

In November 2023, the EPA released a six-page update in response to the 10,000 comments received during the 45-day comment period. The EPA noted that approximately 200 of the comments were unique, while the remainder were part of a mail-in campaign supporting the VSP. 

Brigit Rollins, staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, discussed this update with attendees of the annual meeting of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas in December. Rollins said the biggest takeaway is that the EPA plans to improve the species maps to determine more precise PULAs for the piloted vulnerable species. 

Also, the EPA plans to clarify additional exemptions. Rollins said, “We don’t yet know what those exemptions will look like or how broad they’ll be, but EPA has said they will be doing more to identify those and clarify the boundaries of those.” 

Finally, the EPA plans to provide further VSP updates by fall of 2024. 

Rollins added, “The agency has also said it plans to expand the VSP beyond those original 27 species. They haven’t given a hard deadline on when they are planning to do that, but we are certainly watching for updates. Again, this is very important because more species means more targeted mitigation measures for pesticide applicators.” 

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