EPA denies NRDC petition to save monarch butterflies

Last year, NRDC filed a petition with EPA asking the agency to review the use of glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup) in light of its devastating effects on monarch butterflies and to impose restrictions on its use. After a year of inaction, we took EPA to court and the agency agreed to respond by this summer. Today, EPA responded by denying our petition to protect monarch butterflies.

EPA states that "(t)he agency at this time has not determined that glyphosate causes unreasonable adverse effects to the monarch butterfly." Really? This statement is frankly shocking given there is broad scientific consensus that the dramatic decline in monarch butterflies is due to the loss of milkweed - a native wildflower that the monarch caterpillars depend on as their only food source - as a result of the overuse of glyphosate in connection with crops that have been genetically engineered to resist the herbicide.

The use of glyphosate has skyrocketed since the EPA last approved it over 20 years ago. As a result, milkweed has been largely eliminated from the agricultural Midwest and, without sufficient amounts of milkweed, the monarch population has suffered catastrophic declines. In the last 15 years their population has dropped more than 90% from a high of a billion in the late 1990s to a mere 56.5 million this year--the second lowest count on record.

Rather than acknowledging this fact and speeding up their review of glyphosate, the EPA points to other actions it is taking to help monarchs and other pollinators as part of the White House Pollinator Task Force. Along these lines, EPA is announcing that they will release a document entitled "Risk Management Approach to Identifying Options for Protecting the Monarch Butterfly" in which the agency will solicit feedback on options for reducing the impacts of herbicides on the monarch butterfly. While this suggests that EPA recognizes the role that herbicides are playing in the decline of monarch butterflies, it is not enough for them to solicit feedback and proceed at their regular slow pace in reviewing glyphosate. Given the dire condition that the monarch population is in, and the scientific consensus that glyphosate is destroying monarch habitat, more immediate and meaningful action is needed.

Ironically, EPA states, "if at any time EPA determines there are urgent human health risks and/or environmental risks from pesticide exposures that require prompt attention, the agency will take appropriate regulatory action." Just a couple of months ago the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen - a finding that came out just weeks before EPA approved the expanded use of another glyphosate pesticide combination, Enlist Duo - a decision that we are challenging in court. If a loss of over 90% of monarch butterflies in North America and a finding that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen aren't enough to require prompt attention, I don't know what is!

Unfortunately, EPA's decision to deny our petition is representative of the agency's own denial that pesticides are a big part of the problem facing our pollinators. While the White House Pollinator Task Force committed to providing additional habitat for monarchs and other pollinators, the EPA has largely refused to address the role that pesticides play in pollinator decline. We will be evaluating our own options and following the EPA's actions closely as they solicit feedback on their "options" for protecting monarch butterflies. However the answer is already clear: EPA must use its authority to require significant reductions in the use of toxic herbicides that are destroying the monarch population.

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About the Authors

Sylvia Fallon

Senior Director, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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