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American Bumble Bee Moves Toward Endangered Species Protection

Sept. 28, 2021, 4:37 PM

Pesticides, development, and climate change are so imperiling the American bumble bee that it may need to be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

Such a listing could have profound implications for development, pesticide use in farming, and livestock grazing because the species is a valuable pollinator that’s highly sensitive to environmental changes.

“The implications could be really significant,” said Keith Hirokawa, an environmental law professor at Albany Law School. “A far-reaching solution would be a fundamental change in the way we build, our agricultural operations,” so that the bees’ habitat is protected.

The American bumble bee historically was common across the U.S., but its populations have declined by 89% in the last 20 years and vanished from eight states, according to a formal petition to list the bee as endangered.

Nationwide Impacts

If the bee is listed, it could be felt across industries coast-to-coast, including renewable energy developers, said Brooke Marcus, a natural resources lawyer at Nossaman LLP in Austin.

Local governments are requiring solar and other renewables developers to attract pollinators, including bees, to the land around their projects, but if a pollinator such as the bumble bee receives ESA protection, it could expose developers to legal liability if they accidentally kill bees, Marcus said.

But the scope of the impact would depend on how the Fish and Wildlife Service defines habitat for the bumble bee and regulates accidental or permitted killings, or “take,” of the bee, Marcus said.

The National Association of Home Builders, which has advocated for a delay in ESA listings for other bee species, can’t say what a possible listing’s effect on the construction industry might be until the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts more analysis, NAHB spokeswoman Liz Thompson said.

Early Step

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the bee may be declining because of habitat destruction, intensifying agriculture, climate change, loss of genetic diversity, pesticides, grazing and competition with non-native honeybees.

It was included among five species that the Fish and Wildlife Service said may warrant listing as part of a “90-day finding"— one of the first steps in listing a species under the ESA, according to a Federal Register public inspection notice published Tuesday.

The service said Tuesday that scientific evidence suggests the American bumble bee may need ESA protections, and the agency will further evaluate the threats to it before issuing a “12-month finding” with deeper analysis.

Podcast: Recent studies that show nectar and pollen contaminated with insecticides may be harming bees much more than previously thought.

“At this early stage, we can’t speculate on potential impacts of listing on land use, pesticide use, etc.,” Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Georgia Parham said in an email. “An understanding of potential impacts of listing will depend on our 12-month finding, in which we determine whether listing is warranted.”

‘Not Really Prepared’

Earlier this year, the service considered possible protections for other bumble bee species, the rare Franklin’s bumble bee and the Suckley’s cuckoo bumble bee, under the ESA.

Pollinators, including bumble bees, are essential to sustaining plant life, crops and ecosystems.

“The dilemma is we’re not really prepared to lose our pollinators,” Hirokawa said. “We haven’t figured out what our substitute would be.”

Hirokawa’s environmental law students, who called themselves the Bombus Pollinators Association of Law Students, partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity in February to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the American bumble bee under the ESA as part of a class project.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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