EPA Can’t Ignore Neonics’ Impacts on Imperiled Species

An endangered Karner blue butterfly

Jill Utrup/USFWS

Harmful pesticides, called neonicotinoids or “neonics,” have been wreaking havoc on bees and other important pollinators for decades. Finally, after nearly four years of litigation, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has committed to assessing the impacts of three neonics on threatened and endangered species across the country. EPA made these commitments in a pair of legal settlements between the agency and the NRDC. Depending on the results of EPA’s assessments (which, under the settlement agreements, are due in 2022 and 2024), EPA ultimately may be required to impose restrictions on the use of these harmful pesticides.

In 2017, NRDC sued EPA after it approved dozens of neonic pesticides without complying with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Act requires EPA to ensure that pesticides registered by the agency are not likely to jeopardize and endangered species. If the pesticide may affect such species, EPA must engage with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in a process referred to as “consultation.” This consultation must be completed before EPA registers the pesticide at issue. But for decades, EPA has given the green light to pesticide products, including neonics, without consultation.

Tony Ernst via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

Since their introduction in the 1990s, neonics have been identified as a leading cause of catastrophic bee declines. These toxic pesticides have also been linked to declines in birds and the hollowing out of aquatic ecosystems. Despite these vast environmental harms, EPA has continued to allow widespread use of neonics. In fact, neonics are now the most widely used insecticides in the country, covering over 150 million acres nationwide. Chances are, you’ve come into contact with neonics—either on your food or during a home pest treatment—whether you know it or not. Center for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that half of Americans are exposed to neonics on any given day.

After overcoming EPA’s attempt to throw our case out of court, NRDC and the EPA reached a partial settlement in January 2021. That agreement requires the agency to begin consultation on imidacloprid, one of the most commonly used neonics, by June 30, 2022.

EPA kicked off that process this year by releasing a proposed “effects determination” in August, finding that a staggering 1,445 species—just short of 80% of all endangered and species in the US—are likely harmed by use of imidacloprid.

side note: As the result of a separate lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the EPA has released the same proposed “effects determinations” for two other neonic chemicals—clothianidin and thiamethoxam–and found likely harm to 1,225 and 1,396 species, respectively.

Neonics contaminate the environment so broadly that they have cascading, ecosystem-wide impacts. So though pollinators are most directly impacts, far more species feel their effects.

Deb Garside/Getty Images

NRDC and EPA have now settled the remaining claims in NRDC’s lawsuit. This latest settlement requires EPA to evaluate the effects of two major neonics—acetamiprid and dinotefuran—on endangered and threatened species by October 2024. If EPA determines that acetamiprid and dinotefuran are likely to harm endangered or threatened species, the settlement requires EPA to begin the formal consultation process required under the ESA.

Getting EPA to begin the consultation process for neonic pesticides could lead to big changes. The ESA gives wildlife—specifically, endangered and threaten species—the absolute highest of priorities. And given EPA’s initial determinations that certain neonics are likely to harm thousands of species, there’s a good chance the consultation process could result in significant, meaningful restrictions on use of neonics to avoid jeopardizing those species. Our team will continue to monitor EPA’s process to ensure that it follows the law, so check back for updates.

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