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Despite pushback, USDA plans to spray toxic insecticides in the Rio Chama watershed

A spray plane applies an insecticide on rangeland on the Crow Indian Reservation near Hardin, Montana. 

Anson Eaglin
A spray plane applies an insecticide on rangeland on the Crow Indian Reservation near Hardin, Montana. 

Federal officials are set to use an insecticide that’s toxic to fish and insects over 25,000 acres of land in the Rio Chama watershed to kill native grasshoppers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pressing forward with its plans despite conservationists arguing the indiscriminate spray will also kill thousands of pollinator species like bees, butterflies and beetles in its wake.

At issue is carbaryl. It’s a man-made pesticide that’s toxic to insects –– including grasshoppers that occasionally experience massive booms in population every couple of years.

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified potential human and ecological health risks from low-level exposure to the spray. It even contaminates water sources and harms aquatic wildlife in the process.

Kaitlin Haase is with the Xerces Society, an organization that advocates for the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. She said this spray kills these insects that compete with cows for often limited rangeland foods.

“We’re going to have a huge loss of pollinators, of other insects that are really critical to fish, bird, mammal diets,” Haase said. “This particular pesticide is going to impact thousands, if not millions of individual insects.”  

Haase said there’s no telling how the spray will affect other endangered wildlife in the Rio Chama watershed such as the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Mexican gray wolf and the Mexican spotted owl.

Haase wishes the federal government would compensate ranchers for losses and implement grazing management techniques to reduce grasshopper densities rather than using carbaryl.

The spraying is due to take place on June 26, a day after National Pollinator Week, in which theUSDA pledged to continue supporting pollinator health. Regarding its New Mexico plans, the agency issued a finding of “no significant impact” on humans and native wildlife.

UPDATE: Since this story was published, the USDA has delayed the spraying until July 7. They provided this emailed statement to KUNM:

"The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), state land managers, and private landowners requested APHIS protect a portion of land in the Rio Chama area of New Mexico from further grasshopper damage, where there is a high population of grasshoppers this year. Following public input and an environmental assessment in March, the treatment plan was scheduled to begin on June 26, but was delayed until July 7 at the request of BLM and other land managers. Questions about the request to delay should be directed to BLM."

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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