Federal agencies scrap aerial pesticide spray which would have exterminated grasshoppers near the Rio Chama with aerial pesticide spraying that many feared would also kill bees, monarch butterflies and other insects vital to the ecosystem.
In a rare move, and in the aging realities of living the “ranch life”, plans to spray 670 gallons of carbaryl, a potent neurotoxin, across a scenic 39-square-mile area in Rio Arriba County stirred a loud outcry from conservationists, tribal advocates and concerned residents, grabbing the attention of local, state and federal leaders.
The U.S. Agriculture Department’s branch in charge of combating invasive pests approved the spraying after conducting an environmental assessment earlier this year. The agency concluded large grasshoppers had proliferated to the level deemed a severe outbreak and would not only consume grasses essential to grazing cattle but would pose a threat to the ecosystem.
But the Xerces Society, a watchdog group, contended the insecticide could inflict widespread collateral damage — killing pollinators, invertebrates and insects that are an important food source for wildlife.
The chemical also has been found to be carcinogenic to humans. The group launched an information campaign that kick started opposition to the project.
The Bureau of Land Management, which controls much of the 25,000 acres in the treatment area, decided against the aerial spraying.
“Additional environmental analysis and outreach for this project is necessary, and we are dedicated to doing so in an open and transparent manner,” BLM’s Taos Field Manager Pamela Mathis said in a statement. “Due to the time needed to carry out additional analysis, the project cannot be achieved this season and will no longer take place.”
BLM will continue working with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to come up with a viable plan on how to deal with the infestation, Mathis added.
Aimee Code, Xerces’ pesticide program director, said she was happy to learn a highly toxic chemical won’t be spread across a beautiful area and ecosystem.
The agencies’ initial action was centered on what could be done to help ranchers, Code said.
“Now we’ve taken a step back and said ‘let’s figure out what’s the right solution for the ranchers, for the recreationalists, for the tribes and the pueblos, for the many people that use this area, and the wildlife that are there,’ ” Code said. “We’re going to take that bigger look and figure out the right solution.”
Federal field technicians surveying the treatment area a month ago tallied 35 invasive grasshoppers per square yard, more than quadruple the eight per yard considered an outbreak and a threat to rangeland ecosystems, an agency official told The New Mexican last week.
Plans called for the plane to spray in a striped pattern, applying the chemical on swaths while leaving adjoining ones unsprayed. That avoids other types of insects, while catching the highly mobile grasshoppers, the official said.
The agency also planned to set up no-spray buffers 500 feet from water bodies and a quarter-mile from riparian areas such as the Chama, Nutrias and Cebolla rivers.
But Code and other critics argued staggered swaths and buffers are meaningless because the pesticide will drift onto unsprayed areas, waters and habitat. The aerial drift also could carry the carcinogens to people rafting on the rivers or hiking on nearby trails.
A tribal advocate said conservationists and others who care about the land now can help BLM come up with a sensible plan.
“Mother Earth wins,” said Terry Sloan, director of Albuquerque-based Southwest Native Cultures. “I’m just glad that this area won’t be devastated and desecrated by a spray at this level.”
In November, farmers and ranchers, including those with BLM grazing allotments, met with county extension services and federal pest control managers to request assistance with the grasshoppers, including the potential use of pesticide treatment in the coming spring, Mathis said.
BLM conveyed grazing permittees’ concerns to USDA and requested a team conduct an environmental analysis, she said. The agency did an assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act and issued a finding of no significant impact in June, she said.
“After reviewing the assessment, the BLM has determined that extra steps are necessary before making a final decision,” Mathis said.
Code said the federal pest control agency presented the environmental assessment to the public in March, but not the specific plan on spraying. That was discovered by a Xerces staffer who was doing a routine search through government documents.
The assessment is a big-picture overview of what might be needed, she said. The actual plan, including the chemical that would be used, caught people by surprise, she said.
Now that there’s dialogue happening, perhaps the pest control managers will consider other options besides insecticides, she said, such as replacing ranchers’ lost grazing grass.
“A lot of science is showing that insecticides are not the solution,” she said. “They end up causing more harm than good over the long haul.”
Like what you just read? Here, at Rafter W Ranch, we are revitalizing ranching! We care about the environment and want to ensure what we do benefits you and your family for decades to come. The wrong pesticides can harm our land, our insects, and most of all what we are trying to do as a “clean farm”. These chemicals are a danger to the ecosystem and we are very happy today that federal agencies see the potential harm to what this could have done to insects outside of the grasshoppers.
From our ranch to your table, help our ranch continue to thrive … purchase beef, chicken, or eggs from our ranch today!