Researchers: New fire retardant rules should help protect endangered species

Researchers: New fire retardant rules should help protect endangered species

27 May 2011

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USA — New rules for using fire retardant should make it less likely that endangered species would be hurt by slurry dropped during aerial firefighting efforts, a team of U.S. Forest Service researchers claim.

Better mapping of rare fish, plant or animal habitat would help incident commanders direct their fire bombers away from those sensitive spots, agency spokesman Glen Stein said during a “technical listening session” on Thursday at the University of Montana.

Other rule changes would limit retardant use in those areas to situations where human life is at immediate risk.

Fire retardant is essentially ammonium-based fertilizer, which kills fish and aquatic insects and promotes the spread of noxious weeds.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula said the Forest Service’s 2008 environmental assessment violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it found that retardant use had no significant impact on fish and aquatic life. Molloy ordered the agency to redo its environmental impact statement by the end of 2011.

Stein said retardant drops have affected between 2,000 and 4,000 acres of the Forest Service’s 193 million acres. And less than a quarter of 1 percent of that slurry landed inside the 300-foot buffer zone along streams and lakes where fish could be affected.

Nevertheless, a misguided retardant drop in 2003 killed 20,000 fish in a single stream, prompting the lawsuit by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. In 2008, the Forest Service reported 65 “jeopardy calls” – incidents where a retardant load may have hurt a plant or animal protected by the Endangered Species Act.

None of those calls came from Montana. However, under the proposed rule, about 3.5 million acres of the state’s 16.8 million acres of national forest land would be excluded from retardant use because of the waterway buffer zone.

The Forest Service considered three options in updating its retardant use rules: Eliminating the use of firefighting retardant completely. Sticking with the 2008 rules under which it was sued. Or adopt a third alternative that would impose the new mapping and use standards described Thursday.

The first option was discarded because retardant is too integral to firefighting tactics, Stein said.

For fish protection, there’s little difference between the second and third options. Fire bombers are already following the 300-foot buffer zone. Of the 14 retardant drops last year that affected ESA creatures, Stein said the new rules might have prevented four.

“That’s like the difference between buying a lottery ticket and not buying one, as far as winning the lottery is concerned,” Stein said. But the mapping rules would make a more significant difference for land creatures such as rare frogs and butterflies that exist only in certain habitats.

Forest Service biologist and fire incident commander Dave Austin said his experience on the San Bernardino National Forest near Los Angeles presented a lot of those occasions. The area gets frequent forest fires, most of which are battled with retardant bombers. It’s also full of tiny pockets of endangered species that have been mapped for protection. The new national plan is largely based on the San Bernardino model, he said.

The draft EIS and other materials related to aerial fire retardant can be found on the Internet at There will be one national community listening session held on the Internet on June 16, before the final comment deadline on June 27. The online session can be found at

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