Bumblebee Protections May Sting Many Industry Sectors

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By Alan Kovski

Developers, farmers, oil and gas companies, electric utilities and others may need to take steps soon to avoid harming an endangered bumblebee but say they are not sure how to go about it.

Those worries have led industry associations to ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to delay protections of the rusty patched bumblebee to next year to allow time for sorting out the basic details of how to find and avoid the insect.

Something as basic as vegetation control along the side of a farm field or setting the route of a natural gas pipeline or an electric transmission line could violate the Endangered Species Act by unintentionally injuring or killing some of the bees. Construction and maintenance permits for all kinds of work could be at risk, and more restrictions on insecticides could be considered.

“It seems the only answer is to not undertake lawful activities,” said Michael Mittelholzer, an assistant staff vice president for environmental policy at the National Association of Home Builders.

Construction permitting takes months, not weeks, and projects are delayed when consultations over endangered species are involved, Mittelholzer told Bloomberg BNA.

March Deadline Nearing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its listing decision Jan. 11 and said it would take effect Feb. 10. The Trump administration delayed the effective date to March 21. The petitioners asked Zinke to delay it further to Jan. 11, 2018.

The first bee to be listed as endangered or threatened in the continental United States, its range is thought to include 13 states stretching from Maine to Tennessee to Minnesota but that is uncertain, given the gaps in research. Other species of bumblebees also are candidates for listing.

The six associations that joined in the petition were the National Association of Home Builders, the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, CropLife America and the National Cotton Council.

No one contacted by Bloomberg BNA argued that the rusty patched bumblebee did not need protections, although the industry petitioners questioned the quality of the science that went into the listing decision. What the petitioners were seeking, first and foremost, were survey guidelines for finding the bee.

“Without these survey protocols, public and private entities cannot undertake their work across at least thirteen states without risking a potential violation of the ESA, and those who already hold federal permits face the threat of having those permits rescinded until FWS-approved surveys can be performed,” the petition said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in a March 9 email that it was studying the petition.

Pesticide Concerns Raised

Surveys can be expensive and time-consuming and could be difficult for a bee that makes nests in the ground and does not use the same nests year after year. Surveys can be narrowly focused in geographic terms to reduce cost and time, although the petition did not get into those details.

Another step might be protocols for avoiding the bees or mitigating impacts when the bees are unavoidable.

The National Cotton Council is concerned about farmers’ ability to use pesticides to control insects and herbicides to control weeds. That would likely be the concern, as well, of CropLife America, a pesticide industry association.

Farmers already face increasing restrictions on the use of organophosphate insecticides, and the bee listing increases worries about more restrictions on the newer class of neonicotinoid pesticides, said Steve Hensley, manager of science and environmental issues for the National Cotton Council.

The listing decision ( RIN:1018-BB66) called particular attention to neonicotinoids. Hensley questioned the wisdom of that, given that the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged pathogens are suspected as the primary problems for the bee. A fungus is the No. 1 suspect in the bee’s decline, although viruses, bacteria and other pathogens also may be factors, the service noted.

“If we concentrate mitigation efforts on the wrong reason for endangerment, we’re not going to do anything for the bees,” Hensley told Bloomberg BNA.

Avoid Delay, Group Says

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation issued a statement calling the petition unfounded and a threat to the survival of the species. This group petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 to list the bumblebee because of precipitous declines in populations.

Sarina Jepsen, director of the endangered species program for the Xerces Society, disagreed with the petitioners on the problem of finding the bee.

“There are plenty of valid survey protocols for bumblebees out there,” Jepsen told Bloomberg BNA. The rusty patched bumblebee is easy to identify and distinguish from other bumblebees, she added.

Decisions on the rusty patched bumblebee may be bellwethers for more listing actions to come. The service is studying the western bumblebee, found in 14 states, the yellow banded bumblebee, found in 22 states, and Franklin’s bumblebee, once found in two states and now possibly extinct.

The Xerces Society, working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has concluded that a quarter of the 47 bumblebee species in the U.S. and Canada are at risk of extinction.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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