US EPA releases draft analysis of the insecticide sulfoxaflor and its impact on federally listed endangered and threatened species; sulfoxaflor is less persistent and less toxic to most species compared to older insecticides, EPA says

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WASHINGTON , July 25, 2022 (press release) –

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is releasing its draft biological evaluation (BE)EXITEXIT EPA WEBSITE that contains EPA’s analysis of the potential effects of the insecticide sulfoxaflor on federally listed endangered and threatened (listed) species and designated critical habitats. The draft BE will be available for comment for 60 days. 

Sulfoxaflor was first registered in 2013 and is used on a variety of crops to target difficult pests, such as aphids and tarnished plant bugs (lygus), as an alternative to older insecticides, including carbamates, neonicotinoids, organophosphates and pyrethroids. The draft assessment finds that, overall, when compared to insecticides like the neonicotinoids imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, and the organophosphate insecticides malathion, chlorpyrifos and diazinon, sulfoxaflor is less persistent and less toxic to most species, which generally leads to lower risks to human health and the environment.

The BE is part of EPA’s efforts to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This work furthers the goals outlined in EPA’s April 2022 ESA Workplan to provide practical protections from pesticides for listed species.

Background on sulfoxaflor

In 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s 2013 sulfoxaflor registration, citing inadequate data on the effects of sulfoxaflor on bees. Following the court’s decision, EPA issued a cancellation order on Nov. 12, 2015, prohibiting the distribution or sale of sulfoxaflor.

In 2016, EPA issued a new, limited registration for sulfoxaflor, allowing its use only on crops that are not attractive to pollinators or in situations that minimize or eliminate potential exposure to bees. These new restrictions practically eliminated exposure to bees in the field, and EPA was able to register certain uses of sulfoxaflor while protecting pollinators.

In 2019, after completing a comprehensive risk assessment of the effects of sulfoxaflor that utilized a large suite of data on potential honey bee effects, EPA expanded the sulfoxaflor registration to include uses on alfalfa, corn, cacao, grains, pineapple, sorghum, teff, teosinte, tree plantations, citrus, cotton, cucurbits, soybeans, and strawberries. EPA also amended instructions for uses that were registered in 2016.

Draft biological evaluation

EPA’s draft BE finds that sulfoxaflor is likely to adversely affect certain listed species and designated critical habitats. The “likely to adversely affect” (LAA) determination means that EPA reasonably expects that at least one individual animal or plant, among a variety of listed species, may be exposed to sulfoxaflor at a sufficient level to have an adverse effect. This is the case even if a listed species is almost recovered to a point where it may no longer need to be listed.

In this BE, EPA further refined its analysis to predict the likelihood that sulfoxaflor use could lead to jeopardy for certain listed species or adverse modification of designated critical habitats. In contrast to its LAA determinations, EPA’s draft likelihood of jeopardy and adverse modification predictions examine effects of sulfoxaflor at the species scale (population as opposed to an individual of a species). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively “the Services”) will make the final determination as to whether sulfoxaflor use could lead to jeopardy or adverse modification.

As part of its assessment, EPA evaluated the effects of sulfoxaflor on over 1,700 listed species and over 800 designated critical habitats in the United States, determining that sulfoxaflor, without further mitigation:

  • Will cause no effect to 36 percent of listed species and 52 percent of critical habitats;
  • May affect but is not likely to adversely affect 30 percent of listed species and 35 percent of critical habitats;
  • Is likely to adversely affect but EPA predicts the likelihood that use will not:
  • Cause jeopardy to 27 percent of listed species; or
  • Adversely modify 9 percent of critical habitats; and
  • Is likely to adversely affect and EPA predicts the likelihood that use may:
  • Cause jeopardy to 7 percent of listed species; and
  • Adversely modify 4 percent of critical habitats.

EPA has begun discussions with the registrant to determine what additional mitigation measures could be implemented in the near term to protect listed species and critical habitats. In response, the registrant recently proposed additional amendments to sulfoxaflor product labels that include certain mitigation measures. EPA may consider mitigations in addition to those proposed by the registrant, such as adding or increasing buffers, imposing geographical use limits, or incorporating additional methods to reduce pesticide drift. EPA encourages public comments on the proposed label amendments and other mitigation measures that may be appropriate.

In this draft BE, EPA used historical insecticide usage data for certain use patterns and use areas to better understand where and how farmers use insecticides that target a similar group of pests as sulfoxaflor. This allowed EPA to better understand where listed species could be exposed to sulfoxaflor. The Agency is also interested in stakeholder comments regarding the usage data that EPA incorporated in the BE.

After considering public comments on the draft BE and any additional mitigations that are agreed upon with the sulfoxaflor registrant, EPA will make any appropriate changes and issue a final BE. If EPA determines in its final BE that sulfoxaflor is not likely to adversely affect listed species and/or critical habitats given the agreed-upon mitigation measures, EPA will enter informal consultation with the Service(s) for their concurrence. If EPA determines that sulfoxaflor is likely to adversely affect listed species and/or critical habitats, EPA will initiate formal consultation and share its findings with the Services. During formal consultation, the Services use EPA’s effects determinations to inform their biological opinions (BiOps), which will include the final determinations of whether a pesticide jeopardizes each relevant listed species and/or adversely modifies designated critical habitats. Through the formal consultation process, the Service(s), EPA, the sulfoxaflor registrant, and other stakeholders may develop additional mitigation measures to protect listed species and/or designated critical habitats.

The draft BE will be available for public comment for 60 days in docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2010-0889.

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