Conservation Groups Join California in Legal Dispute Over Protecting Bumblebees

Crotch's bumble bee. (Credit: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)

Environmentalists are backing state wildlife officials in a legal dispute over critically threatened bumblebees.

In June 2018, the California Fish and Game Commission listed four species — crotch, Franklin’s, suckley cuckoo and western bumblebee — as candidate species for protections under the state Endangered Species Act.

A few months later, the California Farm Bureau Federation and six other agricultural associations sued the state over that decision. They argue that the the law cannot protect the bees because it defines candidate species as “bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile or plant” and does not directly mention “insects.”

If California listed the bees as endangered species it would set a harmful precedent for farmers and ranchers, they say.

Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Food Safety filed a motion to intervene last month. Those groups seek to defend the state’s decision.

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While the environmentalists’ move is not surprising — their petition led to the bumblebees being proposed for protected status — it does add legal muscle to fight the case.

The four bees are critically endangered and by the legal standards within the California Endangered Species Act should be listed,” said Kim Delfino,  Defenders of Wildlife's California program director. “We believe that insects should be protected under the state endangered species act.

The agency report found that the bee populations are in “steep decline,” in part because of pesticides and farmer-managed honeybee colonies. Bumblebees depend on abundant flowers and undisturbed habitat to nest and spend the winter, but officials say ranching and climate change threaten their habitat.

Franklin’s bumblebee, for example, is so threatened that California bee surveys have not detected the species since 1998. While state officials don’t yet believe the bee is extinct, the survey results suggest its distribution — already the smallest of any North American bumblebee species — is exhausted, the state's listing report says.

The California Farm Bureau Federation argues that the remedies the environmentalists proposed to protect the bumblebees — restricting grazing, pesticides and the use of commercial honeybees — would harm farmers and ranchers.

The coalition of agricultural groups opposing the bee listing include the Almond Alliance of California, California Association of Pest Control Advisers, California Citrus Mutual, California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association and Western Agricultural Processors Association and Western Growers.

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