EPA Failed to Protect Endangered Red-Legged Frog
(Beyond Pesticides, September 27, 2005) On September 19, 2005, endangered species activists won an important lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Center for Biological Diversity v. Leavitt, reigning in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decade-long failure to protect the California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii) from 66 of the most toxic and persistent pesticides authorized for use in California.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White found that EPA violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by registering pesticides for use without considering how these pesticides might impact the continued existence of the red-legged frog. The court determined that because EPA registered pesticides for use in, or upwind, of the frog’s few remaining habitats, EPA was required to review the impacts these pesticides have on the frog “at the earliest possible time.” The court thus ordered EPA to initiate “consultation” under ESA, our nation’s safety net for imperiled fish, wildlife, and plants.
“The California red-legged frog has been intertwined with our state’s identity for over a century, and it has been integral to our literature, our gold rush, and even our cuisine,” said Brent Plater, who argued the case for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We owe it to future generations of Californians to insure that toxic chemicals do not destroy this wonderful creature or the special places it calls home, and the court’s order recognizes that one of the best ways to do that is through the checks and balances found in the Endangered Species Act.”
ESA requires federal agencies to consult with endangered species experts to determine how activities such as pesticide registration impact species and their critical habitats. This system of checks and balances helps prevent extinctions - scientists believe that ESA has reduced extinction rates in the United States by an order of magnitude. However, developers and the politicians they give money to are attempting to eliminate this safety net. Recently, they introduced H.R. 3824, a bill that would allow a political appointee to overrule the independent and objective recommendations of endangered species scientists, the very procedure that the court here found was necessary “at the earliest possible time” to protect Twain’s frog.
The consultation process is particularly important to the red-legged frog because EPA has allowed over 200 million pounds of pesticides to be applied each year in California without consulting with wildlife experts to determine if California’s imperiled fish and wildlife are being harmed. “There is overwhelming data showing that numerous pesticides have potentially serious impacts on red-legged frogs and amphibians in general, but EPA has resisted assessing those impacts,” said Jeff Miller, wildlife advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “EPA must now consider the ample evidence of pesticides contributing to decline of native amphibians when registering pesticides for use in red-legged frog habitat, particularly atrazine and other proven harmful contaminants. We expect EPA to take adequate measures to ensure that their pesticide review program protects endangered species as well as human health and safety,” added Mr. Miller.
Historically abundant throughout California, red-legged frogs have declined in numbers over 90% and have disappeared from 70% of their former range. Studies implicate pesticide drift from the Central Valley in disproportional declines of several native frog species in the Sierra Nevada, including red-legged frogs. The Fish and Wildlife Service has noted that the percentage of upwind land in agricultural production is 6.5 times greater for Sierra Nevada and Central Valley sites where red-legged frogs have disappeared than for sites where frogs still live.
Amphibians are declining at alarming rates across the globe, and many scientists believe that industrial chemicals and pesticides may be partially to blame. Numerous scientific studies have definitively linked pesticide use with significant developmental, neurological and reproductive effects on amphibians. Pesticide contamination can cause deformities, abnormal immune system functions, diseases, injury, and death of red-legged frogs and other amphibians. Red-legged frog tadpoles are likely to be killed or paralyzed by some herbicides such as triclopyr and insecticides such as fenitrothion. Recent studies by Dr. Tyrone Hayes at the University of California have strengthened the case for banning atrazine, the most common contaminant of ground, surface, and drinking water. Dr. Hayes demonstrated that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor that chemically castrates and feminizes male amphibians. Atrazine has also been linked to increased prostate cancer and decreased sperm count in men, as well as higher risk of breast cancer in women.