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By David Schultz
May 19 --After a five-month delay, the White House released the final report of its inter-agency Pollinator Health Task Force, which the administration established almost a year ago to address dramatic recent declines in the populations of bees, butterflies and other pollinator insects.
The 64-page report, and its accompanying 92-page research action plan, released May 19, outline the actions more than a dozen federal agencies will take to achieve the following three goals:
• reduce winter losses of honeybee colonies to no more than 15 percent by 2025,
• boost the number of monarch butterflies that overwinter in Mexico to 225 million by 2020 and
• restore or enhance 7 million acres of pollinator habitat by 2020.
(Click image to enlarge.)
Two recent data points illustrate how challenging it will be to meet these goals: beekeepers lost 23.1 percent of their colonies over this past winter, according to preliminary results from a USDA-funded annual survey of beekeepers, and that number hasn't dipped below 20 percent since the survey first began in 2006. In addition, monarch butterfly populations have declined by more than 90 percent over the past two decades, according to Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.
The Environmental Protection Agency role in the task force, which the agency co-chaired with the Department of Agriculture, was mainly concerned with examining how exposure to pesticide affects bees and other pollinators.
In the report, the agency said that by the end of 2015 the EPA would propose new restrictions on the use of bee-toxic insecticides on farms while bees are on site providing pollination services. The EPA also is encouraging states to adopt their own pollinator protection plans that can help foster more communication between beekeepers and pesticide applicators and, hopefully, avoid accidental bee kills.
The task force report specifically addressed neonicotinoids, a widely used class of insecticides produced by Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and others that is believed to be highly toxic to pollinators.
The EPA is accelerating its re-evaluation of these insecticides and will issue its first risk assessment of a neonicotinoid before the end of this fiscal year.
The agency also will follow up on its 2014 study on the efficacy of neonicotinoid seed treatments on soybeans with more studies for different crops.
Despite the planned studies, many environmental groups were unsatisfied with the measures the task force took on neonicotinoids, which they believe are the primary cause of pollinator decline.
“They're dancing around some of the real steps they need to take to address pesticide use,” Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a pollinator specialist with Friends of the Earth, told Bloomberg BNA. “To get at the heart of the action, they need to restrict neonicotinoid-treated seeds or make non-treated seeds more available to farmers.”
Becky Langer, the head of the Bayer North American Bee Care Program, said her company was pleased that the report took a “balanced, multifaceted” approach to the problem.
She said Bayer, the largest producer of neonicotinoids, is still examining the new restrictions on pesticide use proposed by the EPA, but said that the company supports the creation of state pollinator plans.
“That allows stakeholders to attack problems on the local level,” Langer told Bloomberg BNA.
A large portion of the task force report was devoted to increasing and improving the amount of land that pollinators can use as habitat.
The USDA Farm Service Agency will conduct a survey of all the acres involved in its Conservation Reserve Program to see how much of this land could be considered pollinator habitat, with a goal of getting to 200,000 acres by 2018. In addition, the department's Natural Resources Conservation Service will create a centralized list of all the pollinator-related grants it allocates.
President Barack Obama's proposed spending plan for the 2016 fiscal year proposes $22.1 million in spending for these two programs, a $1.1 million increase from the current fiscal year.
The funding plan also calls for large increases in spending to improve scientific understanding of pollinators through the research-oriented branches of the USDA.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland who has conducted numerous studies on pollinators, said this focus on habitat restoration is a good idea, especially after decades of the removal of native plants to make way for commercial agriculture.
“That can have huge impacts,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “It won’t make all the problems go away, but having large areas that have good, clean food for pollinators and honeybees is a great thing. We’ve seen a lot of land get lost because of the price of corn and soybeans.”
The land-managing bureaus of the Department of the Interior also had a large role to play in the pollinator task force report.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking lead on restoring monarch butterfly habitat. In addition, the agency has initiated the process of determining whether the monarch should be placed on its endangered species list .
The pollinator report also calls on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to create pollinator habitat on its lands that have been damaged by wildfires. The task force set a goal for BLM to begin using at least one native pollinator-friendly plant in all post-fire vegetation restoration efforts in the future.
Though the pollinator task force was led by the EPA and the USDA, a total of 14 different federal agencies participated in the effort.
The Departments of Defense, Energy and Transportation all committed to launching pollinator habitat restoration programs on the lands and rights-of-way they control.
The General Services Administration is updating its rules on maintaining federal facilities to include step-by-step instructions on how to create or improve pollinator habitats.
The National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution will set up outreach and education programs to make more people aware of the benefits pollinators provide and the peril they are facing.
The State Department also is involved. The agency said it would consider locations for its diplomatic missions overseas that are sensitive to local populations of bats, an often-overlooked pollinator.
David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper who was among the first to witness the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006, is cautiously optimistic. He said there were many well-intentioned measures in the task force report, but the key now is how--or whether--they will be implemented.
“It all looks good on paper,” he told Bloomberg BNA from his cell phone, while he released colonies of his bees to help pollinate a blueberry farm in Maine. But the federal officials who sat on the task force are “only as good as their word,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at email@example.com
A copy of the Pollinator Health Task Force report is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf.
A copy of the accompanying Pollinator Research Action Plan is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Research%20Action%20Plan%202015.pdf.
• The agency is re-evaluating the registrations of the most widely used neonicotinoids and will release the first risk assessment from this re-evaluation process ahead of schedule.
• The EPA will conduct more studies about the effectiveness of neonicotinoid seed treatments on various crops, expanding on its 2014 study on soybeans.
• The agency will propose new restrictions on how bee-toxic pesticides can be used on farms while bees are on site providing pollinator services. The EPA will encourage states to adopt their own pollinator protection plans to increase communication between beekeepers and pesticide applicators.
• The EPA is developing new standards for conducting pollinator risk assessments for pesticides that line up more closely with guidelines developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and will use these standards when evaluating the safety of all pesticides.
• To address sharp declines in monarch butterfly populations, the EPA will take measures to preserve the milkweed plant that serves as habitat for the monarch larvae. The agency will conduct studies on how herbicides affect milkweed.
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