Energy/Environment First Look

Every day counts: Group sues Trump for stalling rusty patch bumblebee protection

The rusty patch bumble bee had been granted endangered species protections under the Obama administration.

A rusty patch bumble bee forages on a flower.
Courtesy of Dan Mullen/FWS | Caption

An environmental group has sued the Trump administration for delaying the listing of the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species.

On January 11, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) adopted a rule that would have secured the listing for the insect at the end of a mandatory 30-day waiting period, allowing the bee to receive federal protection as of last Friday. But a 60-day regulatory freeze issued by the Trump administration on January 20 superseded the measure, causing the service to delay the listing until March 21.

But now, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says the US Department of the Interior, which heads the FWS, broke the law when it postponed the listing in a Federal Register notice without official public notification or opportunity for comment. The suit also argues that the listing cannot be suspended because the rule became final when it was initially published January in the Federal Register.

And a long delay could put the bees at further risk, according to the NRDC.

"The science is clear – this species is headed toward extinction, and soon," NRDC senior attorney Rebecca Riley said in a statement. "There is no legitimate reason to delay federal protections for this bee." 

The suit asks the court to stop the agencies from implementing the rusty patch delay order from the White House, allowing the bee to secure its spot on the endangered species list immediately.

Once a species is listed as endangered, it receives significant protections under federal law. A listing for the rusty patch would require the FWS to develop a comprehensive plan for aiding the recovery of the bee and to provide it with federally-protected habitats.

Many environmentalists voiced concerns about the delayed listing. But some groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposed listing the bumblebee as endangered, supported the freeze.

"We're excited that the administration is taking a second look," Ryan Yates, the group's director of congressional relations, told the Associated Press.

The American Farm Bureau said the listing of the rusty patch could lead to limits on land or chemical use and that private partnerships, not the federal government, are better suited to protect the bees in the wild.

Regardless of whether help comes from private or federal sources, it is clear that the rusty patch needs help. Over the past two decades, the bees have disappeared from 90 percent of their usual range due to a range of factors, from disease to climate change to habitat loss. As the Christian Science Monitor's Charlie Wood previously reported:

Once a common sight across 20 American states and two Canadian provinces, the rusty-patched bumblebee has been observed in only 13 states and one province since 2000. Accompanying this territorial collapse, colony counts are down almost 90 percent....

In addition to the vital ecological role they play ensuring the continued production of the flowers and seeds that support animals from songbirds to bears, the bumblebee has unique economic value to humans.

According to US Fish and Wildlife, their ability to “buzz pollinate” makes them even more effective than other species, and an essential player in the farming of blueberries, cranberries, and clover. Tomatoes also depend almost exclusively on bumblebees.

If the lawsuit is successful, or if the listing passes once the freeze ends March 21, the rusty patch will become the first North American bee to receive recognition under the Endangered Species Act. But while FWS officials say the delay will not affect conservation efforts, the NRDC says promised cutbacks on federal regulation from the White House put the preservation of the bee – and other threatened pollinators – at a serious risk.

"The Trump administration has put the rusty patched bumblebee back on the path to extinction," the NRDC's Ms. Riley told the AP. "This bee is one of the most critically endangered species in the country and we can save it - but not if the White House stands in the way."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.