WASHINGTON — After years of effort, scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service had a moment of celebration as they wrapped up a comprehensive analysis of the threat that three widely used pesticides present to hundreds of endangered species, like the kit fox and the seaside sparrow.
“Woohoo!” Patrice Ashfield, then a branch chief at Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters, wrote to her colleagues in August 2017.
Their analysis found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants, a conclusion that could lead to tighter restrictions on use of the chemicals.
But just before the team planned to make its findings public in November 2017, something unexpected happened: Top political appointees of the Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, blocked the release and set in motion a new process intended to apply a much narrower standard to determine the risks from the pesticides.
Leading that intervention was David Bernhardt, then the deputy secretary of the interior and a former lobbyist and oil-industry lawyer. In October 2017, he abruptly summoned staff members to the first of a rapid series of meetings in which the Fish and Wildlife Service was directed to take the new approach, one that pesticide makers and users had lobbied intensively to promote.
Mr. Bernhardt is now President Trump’s nominee to become interior secretary. The Senate is scheduled to hold a hearing on his confirmation Thursday.
This sequence of events is detailed in more than 84,000 pages of Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests by The New York Times and, separately, by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued the federal government to force it to complete the pesticide studies.
The documents provide a case study of how the Trump administration has been using its power to second-guess or push aside conclusions reached by career professionals, particularly in the area of public health and the environment.
The decision to block the release of the report represented a victory for the pesticide industry, which has industry allies and former executives sprinkled through the administration. Among those with the most at stake were Dow AgroSciences, a manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, which is used on dozens of fruits and vegetables, and FMC Corporation, a manufacturer of malathion, which is used against mosquitoes as well as chewing and sucking insects that attack a range of crops including tomatoes, strawberries and walnuts.
Dow, which was recently renamed Corteva, donated $1 million to Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee. E.P.A. and Interior Department records show that top pesticide industry executives had regular access to senior agency officials, pressing them to reconsider the way the federal government evaluates the threat pesticides cause to endangered species.
A Dow spokesman said the shift in policy was unrelated to the $1 million contribution. The new approach will result in “a better understanding of where and how pesticides are being used,” said Gregg M. Schmidt, a Corteva spokesman.
Asked if Mr. Bernhardt’s intervention was appropriate or motivated by a desire to serve the industry’s interests, an Interior Department spokeswoman said his actions had been “governed solely by legitimate concerns regarding the legal sufficiency and policy.”
Before he joined the Trump administration, Mr. Bernhardt worked as a lawyer and lobbyist representing clients including the oil and gas industry. He was frequently paid to challenge endangered species-related matters, including one involving a tiny silvery blue fish called the delta smelt whose protection by the federal government has resulted in limits on water use by California farmers.
Agency records suggest Mr. Bernhardt, after having had only limited involvement in the issue, had nine meetings or calls on his schedule with Fish and Wildlife staff in October and November 2017, and helped write the letter saying the Interior Department was no longer prepared to release the draft.
Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the E.P.A. official at the time who ran the office in charge of toxic chemicals and pesticides, said the sudden change in regulatory philosophy was part of a broader trend across the government after Mr. Trump’s election.
“It is certainly similar to the pattern we saw in toxic chemicals as well, where the regulated industry had a more sympathetic ear in the new administration,” said Ms. Hamnett, who left the E.P.A. in late 2017, after a 38-year career with the agency. “And that resulted in a shift in approach as to how these issues would be handled.”
Gary Frazer, the top endangered species official at the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose schedule says he participated in all nine of the late 2017 discussions with Mr. Bernhardt, and who subsequently directed his staff to revise the study, said he did not believe the change in direction was politically driven.
“It was an entirely appropriate role,” he said in an interview, as two of the agency’s public affairs officials listened in. “There was no arm-twisting of any kind.”
The endangered species review is required as part of the re-registration of pesticides, a process that occurs every 15 years.
Experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service were supposed to determine if any of the pesticides might “jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat of such species,” a standard created under federal law.
Much of the work focuses on questions like whether a wildfire management program in the Florida Everglades hurt endangered species such as the American crocodile or the West Indian manatee. The Fish and Wildlife Service rarely makes so-called jeopardy findings; a 2015 study of nearly 7,000 cases found that only two concluded with a finding that a species was in jeopardy.
The pesticide industry, as well as groups representing farmers who rely on its products, began to mobilize as the endangered species review got underway during the Obama administration.
With Mr. Trump’s election, the industry escalated its campaign. In April 2017, its lawyers sent a letter to Ryan Zinke, then the interior secretary; Scott Pruitt, then the E.P.A.’s administrator; and the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, asking them to “direct that any effort to prepare biological opinions,” as the process is called, “be set aside,” arguing that the analysis was “fundamentally flawed.”
The industry’s central argument was that the federal scientists were not sufficiently taking into account the difference between how the pesticides could legally be used and how they were actually used.
Staff members at the Fish and Wildlife Service, emails show, did have access to actual pesticide usage, as well as other information, such as measurements of pesticide concentrations found in salmon-bearing streams in Washington State.
But the agency staff — working from dozens of field offices like Hawaii and Maine as well as the headquarters — generally built its predictions of a “jeopardy” threat to endangered species by assuming the pesticides were being used to the maximum extent possible as allowed by their labels.
That is because “unlike most other types of product labels, pesticide labels are legally enforceable,” according to E.P.A. policy. And historic usage data, the agency staff said in its documents, is not sufficient to predict how these pesticides might be used — and cause harm — in the coming 15 years.
The pesticides, particularly chlorpyrifos and malathion, are “high toxicity” for all animals, and their effect on endangered species would be both direct and indirect, via contamination of food sources, for example, the staff concluded. The E.P.A. has separately considered banning chlorpyrifos because of potential harm to humans.
The Fish and Wildlife staff cited the San Joaquin kit fox, a tiny animal that weighs about five pounds, with a slim body, large ears and a long, bushy tail. Decades ago, it inhabited large parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley, an area today of intensive farming and pesticide use. But most of those fox populations are now gone, in part because pesticides like diazinon contaminated birds and grasses the foxes fed on, the agency concluded.
The Cape Sable seaside sparrow, another endangered species located mostly now in Florida, was found to be in jeopardy as a result of drifting sprays of chlorpyrifos. “For many vulnerable species, a single exposure could be catastrophic,” an October 2017 summary of the staff’s findings said.
Agency records show repeated contacts in early 2017 by the pesticide industry with administration officials. Among those targeted, the emails show, was Daniel Jorjani, a top Interior Department lawyer who had spent six years working for groups connected to the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
Aaron Hobbs, a onetime lobbyist for CropLife, the leading pesticide industry trade association, who now works for an affiliate of the industry-funded group, reached out to Mr. Jorjani and invited him to an April 2017 meeting with industry officials to discuss the endangered species effort — shortly after sending the letter asking the agency to kill the Fish and Wildlife Service’s work. He followed up again in July in an attempt to set up another meeting.
Top officials from the E.P.A. and Interior and Agriculture Departments began a series of meetings in June 2017, often involving representatives from the White House.
Among the other participants in these meetings, the records show, was Rebeckah Adcock, who until April 2017 had been a director of government affairs and registered lobbyist for CropLife and who now works as a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department.
Ms. Adcock joined the discussions even though the ethics agreement she signed said she would not participate “personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving CropLife for one year. An Agriculture Department spokesman said this did not violate that ban because she had not specifically lobbied on endangered species matters for CropLife.
Even as these meetings were taking place, staff members inside the Fish and Wildlife Service were wrapping up the enormous task of assessing the threat presented by these pesticides, email records show.
The team had concluded that chlorpyrifos put 1,399 species — a mixture of animals and plants — in jeopardy, while malathion put 1,284 of them in jeopardy and diazinon, a third pesticide that was evaluated, placed 175 species in jeopardy. There are 1,663 species listed as endangered or threatened in the United States, meaning that two of the pesticides may be putting most of them in jeopardy. (This information, agency officials said, was accidentally released in a Freedom of Information response obtained by The Times. They intended to keep this tally a secret, because the assessment was not final.)
The agency staff was not recommending that the pesticides be banned. Instead, they were proposing changes in how the pesticides could be used, including possible restrictions on their use in areas where endangered species are found, or at certain times of year, the documents say.
Lawyers who work for the interior secretary’s office wanted a very different approach. They advocated abandoning the presumption that use of a pesticide by a farmer or a golf course might directly cause the death of or harm to an endangered species, officials said.
Their argument was that because farmers, for example, do not manufacture the pesticide, their use of it means that any harm caused is an indirect effect, as defined under federal law. There is a much higher standard of proof needed to demonstrate that an indirect effect has harmed an endangered species. The law requires that this harm be shown to be “reasonably certain to occur.” The revised approach is almost certainly going to result in fewer plants and animals being judged to be in jeopardy of extinction as a result of continued pesticide use.
The shift in approach goes far beyond a single Fish and Wildlife Service analysis. In early 2018, Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Zinke and Mr. Ross agreed to work toward a new framework for all endangered species evaluations, a move that CropLife called “a positive step towards solving this important and complex issue.”
Documents show that the administration does not now expect to make public any draft results of the revised assessment until April 2020, two and a half years later than had been planned.