(Beyond Pesticides, March 24, 2017) On March 21, the rusty patched bumblebee’s path to protection cleared political hurdles this week. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on March 21 officially listed the rusty patched bumblebee under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), after months of turmoil due to the Trump Administration’s temporary freeze on federal regulations adopted at the end of the Obama Administration. This listing stands as a landmark decision, marking the rusty patched bumblebee the first bumblebee species, and first bee overall in the continental U.S., to officially be declared endangered by FWS. In October 2016, FWS listed seven species of bees as endangered in Hawaii. The initial decision to list the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species came at the very end of President Obama’s term, on January 11, to take effect in February.
FWS said in its news release, “Causes of the decline in rusty patched bumble bee populations are believed to be loss of habitat; disease and parasites; use of pesticides that directly or indirectly kill the bees; climate change, which can affect the availability of the flowers they depend on; and extremely small population size. Most likely, a combination of these factors has caused the decline in rusty patched bumble bees.” There is substantial research demonstrating that neonicotinoid insecticides, working either individually or synergistically, play a critical role in the ongoing decline of bees and other pollinators.
On President Trump’s first day in office, he issued an order instructing federal agencies to postpone the effective date of any regulations that had been published in the Federal Register, but were not yet in effect. This effectively reversed the decision and established a new review period up until March 21. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) responded by filing a lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s decision. Now that the decision to list the rusty patched bumblebee has been reinstated, NRDC has said that it has pulled the lawsuit, according to the Washington Post.
According to FWS, the rusty patched bumble bee was once widespread across the U.S. and parts of Canada, but declined dramatically in the 1990s. In its article, the Washington Post states that, “The rusty patched bumblebee was so prevalent 20 years ago that pedestrians in Midwestern cities had to shoo them away.” Since then, their populations have dwindled and their overall decline is estimated at 91 percent.
While this decision by FWS is something to celebrate, there are still certain issues that persist, and even some that the listing does not address. While acknowledging that pesticides are a leading cause of decline, especially in combination with other stressors, the FWS decision does not include any enforceable ban on pesticide uses in suspected habitat zones; however, it is now be EPA’s responsibility to protect the bee under the no adverse effects standard of ESA, rather than the weaker standard of acceptable risk under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The decision allows for an “incidental take permit” option, which essentially creates an exception to the law under certain circumstances where a project is likely to cause the incidental take (death) of the rusty patched bumblebee. This is quite problematic, as FWS has already acknowledged in its initial assessment that population status of the rusty patched bumblebee has not been reconfirmed since the early 2000s, meaning that currently there may be even less of the species left.
Although there may be weaknesses in the ultimate protection, environmental groups and other concerned parties can still unify around strenuously enforcing this decision. Groups will keep a lookout for new lawsuits coming from industry to challenge the decision. According to the Washington Post, a lawsuit could be filed by “a coalition of oil, housing developers, farm and energy lobbies that petitioned the Interior Department for a year-long delay in implementing the bee’s status.”
While attacks against ESA listings are likely to become more frequent over the next several years, the importance of wild pollinators, both to agricultural productivity and for their intrinsic value, has become more widely understood, as domesticated and native bees suffer dramatic declines in their population. There is a strong economic argument that it costs more to not protect species like the Rusty Patch than to allow them to go extinct. A 2016 UN report warns of shortages in global food supplies should pollinator numbers decline, and estimates that pollinators worldwide contribute between $235 and $577 billion in agricultural productivity annually.
Show appreciation for both wild and managed pollinators by taking local action. Get involved at the community level to pass policies that protect imperiled pollinators. Right now, without federal protection, the rusty patched bumblebee needs concerned communities throughout the country to step in and makes changes that give it a fighting chance. Use Beyond Pesticides’ resources and educational materials, including our BEE Protective doorknob hangers to get the word out. And be sure follow Beyond Pesticides’ ongoing series celebrating unsung wild pollinator heroes through the Polli-NATION campaign.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.