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Government report confirms flawed Endangered Species Act science

Report on Endagered Species Act raises questions. House Agriculture Committee members want answers from the EPA.

Following the recent release of the National Research Council's (NRC) risk assessments report on pesticides, members of Congress have called on four federal agencies to start over and conduct a more thorough study that more directly answers serious questions relating to Endangered Species Act biological opinions (BiOp) and crop protection products.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requested the NRC to examine some trivial issues pertaining to the Endangered Species Act consultation process for pesticides. The NRC report -- titled "Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides" -- raised general concerns regarding the federal government's methods to conduct scientific assessments of ecological risks from pesticides, as required by the Endangered Species Act. However, the report failed to specifically evaluate NMFS biological opinions that several House Members, states, scientists and even a federal court, have criticized as flawed and indefensible.

Read the report here.

At a May 2011 joint oversight hearing, held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Agriculture and Natural Resources, a bipartisan group urged the federal agencies to modify their request and ensure the NRC conducts a complete and comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the Biological Opinions pertaining to pesticide use nationwide. Members specifically requested that such a study include an evaluation of the technical and economic feasibility of the so-called "reasonable and prudent measures" suggested by the NMFS, as well as a comprehensive scientific peer-review of each of the Biological Opinions that had been issued to date. In a follow-up letter to the NRC dated June 23, 2011, Chairmen Lucas, Hastings, and Simpson outlined the minimum issues that needed to be addressed if the study was to be at all valuable.

If implemented, NMFS measures would affect more than 112 million acres and impact rural economies in California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho by ending the use of vital crop protection tools, forcing family farmers out of business, and jeopardizing production of a significant portion of the fruits, vegetables and grains grown in these states. The measures would also put human health at risk by restricting the ability to control disease-carrying mosquito populations.

Though the USDA, EPA, and even the NRC agreed that such a comprehensive analysis would be necessary and beneficial, this request was rejected without justification by the NMFS and FWS. The subsequent contract proffered by the government agencies specifically prohibited the NRC from conducting a comprehensive analysis and instead allocated valuable government resources to a study of only a few trivial issues.

A recent Fourth Circuit Federal Appeals Court decision re-enforces the need for the analysis advocated by the members of Congress when it vacated the first of NMFS' Biological Opinions for NMFS' failure to do the necessary analysis under the ESA and its implementing regulations.

"While we appreciate the hard work of the NRC, the charge to the council was so restrictive as to render their final report meaningless," said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas. "If we are to truly protect threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats, it is essential that the federal agencies charged with administering the Endangered Species Act be open to legitimate scientific scrutiny of their policies and practices."

"With the recent federal court ruling that NOAA's salmon BiOps for crop protection products are based on flawed science, outdated data, and failed to consider economic impacts, it is imperative that the National Academy of Sciences comprehensively review the flaws and force NOAA to re-write these opinions as soon as possible," said Rep. Doc Hastings. "In addition, while incomplete, the National Academy of Sciences' report clearly raises questions about the lack of data and questionable science used by federal agencies to implement the Endangered Species Act, and will require more oversight." 

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