In Big Win for Wildlife, California Curbs Use of Dangerous Rat Poisons

Governor Newsom signs law placing moratorium on second generation rodenticides known to kill non-target animals like mountain lions.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the California Ecosystems Protection Act (AB 1788) into law on Tuesday, curbing the use of second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs), which have been linked to deaths of non-target wildlife like mountain lions, foxes, and owls.

photo of raptor eating rodent
Rodenticides bioaccumulate in animals that prey on rodents, including bobcats, foxes, and raptors like the American Kestrel (pictured). Photo by of RS2Photography / Flickr.

The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), places a moratorium, with limited exceptions, on the use of SGARs until the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reevaluates the products. It also requires regulators to adopt any additional restrictions necessary to ensure the poisons will not have significant adverse effects on native and non-target wildlife before the moratorium can be lifted.

“There has been a groundswell of support for this bill, amongst citizens of California,” Lisa Owens Viani, Director and Co-Founder of Raptors are the Solution (RATS), told Earth Island Journal. “From San Diego to Humboldt County, people are very concerned about this issue and are actively trying to do something about it.” RATS, an Earth Island project, co-sponsored the bill, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

SGARs, which cause hemorrhaging and anticoagulant rodenticide intoxication, are often lethal to rodents after a single feeding. But intoxicated animals usually do not die immediately upon ingesting the compound –– instead, they become lethargic, making them easy prey for raptors and large mammals.

Animals that eat the intoxicated rodents suffer from food chain contamination. The poisons bioaccumulate in their bodies, and can eventually cause internal bleeding and death. Research shows they can also affect the immune systems of animals like bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions.

“These ‘one-feeding-kills’ poisons are devastating California’s wild animals, including some of the state’s most beloved species like mountain lions,” Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund said in a statement. The passage of AB 1788 indicates that “California has taken a critical step towards safeguarding these animals from unnecessary suffering and death.”

Consumer sales of the second-generation rodenticides were banned in 2014, but the compounds continued to be available for commercial use. According to a report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, between 2014 and 2018 over 70 percent of wildlife tested in the state had SGARs in their systems, including animals from 25 species. As proponents of AB 1788 pointed out, this testing showed that the consumer ban was not sufficient to protect California wildlife from being poisoned.

In 2018, RATS filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Pesticide Regulation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), challenging the state’s continued registration of the products without properly evaluating their impacts on non-target wildlife, and disregarding new scientific evidence concerning said impacts.

An outcome of that lawsuit, AB 1788 places what Viani describes as “common sense controls” on anticoagulant rodenticides by restricting use of the most toxic ones while the state re-evaluates the impacts that the products have on non-target wildlife, household pets, and children. (More than 10,000 children in the United States are exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides each year).

The bill also places restrictions on first-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (FGARs) which, while less potent than SGARs, still have “sub-lethal” impacts on animals that consume them, as they become weaker, more susceptible to life-threatening diseases, and less likely to survive.

Some limited exemptions do allow for the continued use of the rodenticides by licensed applicators, for agricultural activities, and to address true public health emergencies caused by rodent infestations. But advocates say AB 1788 is an important step forward in creating a broad, statewide solution to the wildlife impacts of the poisons.

“We can protect public health without threatening California’s wildlife,” said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We applaud Governor Newsom and Assemblymember Bloom for their leadership in protecting California’s mountain lions, bobcats, and kit foxes.”

While AB 1788 was met with opposition from many within the chemical and biotech industries who claim the products are important tools in preventing disease and protecting public health and property, safe and effective alternatives do exist. Improving sanitation, eliminating food and water sources, trimming foliage and tree limbs in residential areas, and employing strategies that encourage natural predation –– such as placing owl boxes in rural areas to increase presence of birds of prey –– are all proven to prevent or address rodent infestations without the use of toxic chemicals.

“My hope for this legislation is that it can be a model for other states,” said Owens Viani. “[California isn’t] the only state that has had these problems with anticoagulants and wildlife impacts. A lot of other states are looking at us and watching us, to see what we do to hopefully set an example and be a model for where other states might go as well.”

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