(Beyond Pesticides, April 19, 2017) Local activists in Illinois were handed a victory on Monday when a judge granted a temporary restraining order to shut down a construction project due to the presence of the rusty patch bumblebee, a recently listed endangered species. The group Stop Longmeadow, in reference to the Longmeadow Parkway Bridge Corridor project, filed the lawsuit, Case: 1:16-cv-05435, based on the fact that the rusty patch bumblebee has been found in the Brunner Forest Preserve, which borders 5.6 miles of the corridor project.
Defendants, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, argue that the scheduled construction will not affect bumblebee habitat. The court rejected their position, however, siding in the plaintiffs by finding “the balance of harms weighs in favor of the plaintiffs and against the public’s interest in reduced traffic congestions.”
The restraining order was issued by Judge Sharon Coleman in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division. Based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff’s motion, Judge Coleman reasoned that “a brief stay to the project is warranted.” She went on to point out that, contrary to the defendant’s argument, the plaintiffs did not delay in seeking relief, given the quick turnaround between the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the bumblebee on March 21, 2017, and the notice by the county released on April 11, 2017, stating that work would begin on the construction project six days later on April 17. The restraining order is in place until April 28, 2017, when plaintiffs are expected to have submitted a motion for preliminary injunction with additional support for their position as well as notified the federal defendants under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to the judge’s order.
“We understand there are no guarantees but those of us fighting it believe it is the right thing to do and we are not giving up hope,” said Jo Ann Fritz, a supporter of the Stop Longmeadow movement. “We are being vigilant and we are determined,” she continued, showcasing the resolve of local protestors to demand the government protect endangered species and their habitat.
According to the motion, plaintiffs argue that, “The Longmeadow Project has significant and permanent ramifications to not only the local population of the bee, but on the nationwide survival of the species itself.” This is likely true as, 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. An article published in 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.
The listing of the rusty patch bumblebee as an endangered species is significant, marking the first bumblebee species, and first bee overall in the continental U.S., to officially be declared endangered by FWS. This is important to groups like Beyond Pesticides because it requires that this bumblebee and the ecosystem in which it lives must be taken into consideration in all EPA allowances of pesticide use.
In October 2016, FWS listed seven species of bees as endangered in Hawaii. In its news release outlining the decision to list, FWS stated, “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.
A victory in Illinois would not be the first time a large-scale construction project has come to a halt under the provisions of the ESA. In the 1978 landmark Supreme Court decision Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, the court sided with environmentalists and upheld an injunction under the ESA that prevented the Tennessee Valley Authority from finishing the Tellico Dam, based on findings the operation of the dam would wipe out snail darter habitat. The snail darter was listed as an endangered species after the Tellico Dam project had begun, and even though the U.S. government continued to provide funding for the project after the listing, according to the court it did not render the project exempt from the ESA. This case set the precedent for the court’s willingness to enforce the ESA, a tradition that is mirrored by Judge Coleman’s decision in this case to grant a temporary injunction in order to protect the rusty patch bumblebee.
While attacks against ESA listings are likely to become more frequent over the next several years, it is critical that the public is educated on the importance of wild pollinators, both to agricultural productivity and for their intrinsic value. Indeed, there is a strong argument that it would cost more to not protect species like the rusty patch than to allow them to go extinct. A 2016 UN report warning of shortages in global food supplies should pollinator numbers decline any further estimates that pollinators worldwide contribute between $235 and $577 billion in agricultural productivity annually.
Help Beyond Pesticides 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 our 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.