This has been a bad week for bees

By Matt Kelly

Image of rusty patch bumble bee.

This has been a notably bad week for the protection and conservation of bees in the United States.

As was widely reported on Monday, the Trump administration made changes to the Endangered Species Act that significantly weakened the one law that has been essential to the protection and recovery of animal and plant species on the brink of extinction. The changes will make it easier to remove species from the endangered list, make it more difficult for officials to consider the impact of climate change on species when making decisions (because the impact can be years in the future and not immediate), increase the possibility that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not designate critical habitat for all listed species, and allow economic factors to be considered when making decisions about the protection of species.

“The Trump administration’s changes to the ESA are truly disastrous for endangered bees and other wildlife,” said Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Programs for the Xerces Society, by email. “These changes will make it much harder to protect and recover the animals that are struggling to survive and most need our help.”

This includes the rusty patched bumble bee, which was added to the Endangered Species List in early 2017. Jepsen said that because the new rules take away consideration of a species’ recovery when deciding whether or not a species should remain on the list, the rusty patched bumble bee could now be delisted even if its population hasn’t actually recovered. Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to designate critical habitat for the rusty patched bumble bee; because the new rules make it more difficult to designate such critical habitat for species, it could now become more difficult to protect the most important places where the bee occurs.

(At the end of July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, further delaying the project, specifically because the pipeline would disrupt habitat essential to the rusty patch bumble bee and three other endangered and threatened species. As a result of these changes, such protection may no longer occur.)

Then on Tuesday, in response to a petition from the Xerces Society and the late Dr. Robbin Thorp, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing Franklin’s bumble bee as an endangered species. However, the announcement rang hollow in the wake of Monday’s news and because the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that “designating critical habitat for the Franklin’s bumble bee is not prudent”.

And now today the Fish and Wildlife Service will publish its decision not to list the yellow-banded bumble bee as endangered or threatened. After a review of “the best available scientific and commercial information”, the Service concluded that this bumble bee is not in danger of becoming extinct in any significant portion of its known range.

“This aspect of the new rules is a clear win for industry, and a major loss for endangered bees and wildlife in general,” Jepsen said in her email, referring to the fact that commercial and economic factors are now permitted when making decisions about a species. An essential tenant of the Endangered Species Act has always been that the determination for protection is based solely on scientific evidence and “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination”. But this language has now been changed.

“The Yellow banded Bumble bee has declined across its range and is found in only 14 of the 25 states it used to inhabit and should certainly have been listed as threatened,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, by email. “It seems this administration has decided that species should not be protected until they are on the brink of extinction – when it will likely be too late for conservation efforts to be effective.”

Of course, the events of this week aren’t bad news for just the three bumble bees involved. These events also bode ill for all pollinators. Because when one bee is genuinely afforded the intended protections of the Endangered Species Act – when habitat is secured, when incidental take through pesticide use, development and other human activities is prohibited, and when science is the sole basis upon which decisions are made – countless other bees and pollinators in those same regions benefit as well. But when these protections are undermined for just a single bee, then those same bees and pollinators also stand to suffer.

It’s been reported that the rule changes from the Trump administration are expected to go into effect next month. However the use of “commercial information” in the decision about the yellow-banded bumble bee might indicate that the changes are already here.

As we move forward from the events of this week, there are two other cases to keep your eyes on. In June, the California Fish and Game Commission added four bumble bees (including Franklin’s) to its candidate list for protection under the state’s own endangered species law. And in March, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to add the Gulf Coast solitary bee to the Endangered Species List.