Score one for local conservationists Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment (HOPE) and eight other environmental groups.

Last week a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration “plainly violated” the Endangered Species Act and overturned a regulation that fast-tracked approval of pesticides. The fast-track rule would have abolished reviews by the wildlife agencies responsible for protecting rare and endangered animals and plants.

On Aug. 24, US District Judge John C. Coughenour restored pre-2004 standards requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to consult federal wildlife biologists before licensing pesticides. The ruling was a victory for the nine environmental groups, including the Pacific Grove-based HOPE, which sued the US Interior Department two years ago.

The Bush administration’s 2004 rule had allowed the EPA to bypass the US Fish and Wildlife Service in order to abbreviate the years-long process of reviewing whether each pesticide posed a danger to any of the nation’s 1,200-plus endangered species.

“It’s a major ruling,” says John Kostyack, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs. “The Bush Administration had a number of different ways of weakening the Environmental Protection Act. One of the most effective was telling them they don’t have to consult with organizations like the National Wildlife Service.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, concluded in a 2004 report that pesticides jeopardized about 400 animals and plants—including species of owls, salmon, frogs and sea turtles.

According to David Dilworth, executive director of HOPE, the ruling will help protect endangered species in Monterey County like the red-legged  frog and steelhead, both of which are among the most vulnerable to pesticide run-off.

“The net effect of this is that the EPA will have to consult with Fish and Game for all land endangered species and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) for all marine endangered species before registering new pesticides,” Dilworth says. “For the past 30 years there hasn’t been a single consultation. That’s going to change.”

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According to Kostyack, the coalition of environmental groups are now waiting to see if the Bush administration will appeal the ruling.

“If they don’t appeal, then the current regulations are void and the EPA will have to begin dealing with its voluminous backlog of cases,” he says.

For example, one of the most controversial pesticides is atrazine, an herbicide used on corn crops. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the EPA approved its continued use in 2003 despite a finding by UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone B. Hayes that it feminizes frogs at low concentrations.

In his ruling, Judge Coughenour cited “overwhelming evidence on the record” that bypassing the Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in risk to endangered species. While acknowledging that  the EPA faced “a task of gargantuan proportions” in consulting Fish and Wildlife scientists on pesticides, Coughenour wrote in his ruling that the Bush administration was “arbitrary and capricious” in letting the EPA bypass their review.

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