With Trump now in office, what is the future of our endangered bees? Two months into this administration, things don't look very promising.
The Trump administration recently suspended a rule that the Obama administration had introduced to put the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) on the endangered species list. The listing would have represented the first endangered designation for a bee species across the continental US.
Now, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has filed a lawsuit against what they claim was an illegal move by the Trump administration. This is the third lawsuit that the NRDC has already filed against the Trump administration for its attacks on regulation. In this case, which was filed in the US District Court in New York City, the organization asked the court to stop the Department of the Interior and US Fish and Wildlife Service from implementing and enforcing the bumblebee delay order.
"The science is clear -- this species is headed toward extinction, and soon. There is no legitimate reason to delay federal protections," NRDC senior attorney Rebecca Riley told Truthout. "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."
Representatives at the US Fish and Wildlife Service could not comment on pending litigation. However, they claim that the delay is basically nothing to be concerned about.
"The change in the effective date from Feb. 10 to March 21, 2017, is not expected to have an impact on the conservation of the species, Gary Frazer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for the endangered species program, stated in a press release.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service published the "notice of delay" one day before the rule was supposed to go into effect. Moreover, there is no public indication of any alternative strategy to protect the bumblebee. The agency states that the move was not expected to impact conservation efforts and that they're still developing "a recovery plan to guide efforts to bring this species back to a healthy and secure condition."
In its complaint, the NRDC contends that the administration cannot legally suspend the listing because the rule was final when published in the Federal Register. The suit claims the agencies froze the bumblebee's endangered species listing without public notice or an opportunity for comment.
The obstruction of the bumblebee listing is part of a larger problem: The White House has instructed agencies to withdraw or freeze an array of rules that were intended by the Obama administration to protect public health and the environment. In fact, the bee-listing delay is part of a broader January-issued executive order issued by chief of staff Reince Priebus. A 60-day regulatory freeze was implemented across acting heads of executive department and agencies on all pending regulations. According to the White House, the period was intended to be used for "reviewing questions of fact, law and policy they raise."
However, advocates say that the administration could use the "review" to permanently roll back regulations.
"What we are concerned with is that the regulatory freeze is an opportunity to revoke and reverse the environmental-related work already completed," added Riley.
Protecting insects is perceived as bad for business. The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with oil and gas firms, for instance, opposed the endangered designation on the grounds that it could interfere with their industries' operations.
According to Susan Dudley, a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, such regulatory freezes by new presidencies are common.
That may be so, but when dealing with a president who doesn't acknowledge the perils of our environment, one has to wonder whether this pollinating bee will be venerated or forgotten forever.
When I asked Georgia Parham of the US Fish and Wildlife Service why the agency had changed the effective ruling, she expressed that she wasn't comfortable discussing the matter and encouraged me to reach out to the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Department of the Interior has not returned calls or emails.
When speaking to a few government employees, I got the sense that they felt torn as to how to respond publicly to the actions of the Trump administration. On one hand, many federal employees want to express their frustration. And yet, despite significant dissent in the ranks, many employees are still toeing the administration's line to preserve their jobs.
The NRDC is currently awaiting a court date.
What Is at Stake
The loss of the rusty-patched bumblebee would be a significant one, and a harbinger of greater losses to come. The bee is one of 47 species found in North America, more than a quarter of which face the risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
"[It's] not just a lovely little bee; it is a pollinator of wildflowers, fruits, and other crops," states Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. "If the Trump administration can't make room for a bumblebee that directly benefits humans, we are very concerned about what that means both for the bee and for all endangered species."
Before the mid-to-late-1990s, the bumblebee was considered abundant and widespread across a broad geographic radius. But now the population and range have declined by more than 90 percent. In September 2016, seven species of yellow-faced bees were listed as endangered. These were the first bees in the United States listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, they are only found in Hawaii and they're different from both bumblebees and honeybees (bumblebees are characterized by having rounder bodies and smaller colonies than honeybees).
While climate change, disease and loss of habitat are most certainly factors in their demise, many environmentalists and scientists believe the roots of the declines are the incredible amounts of poison in our environment -- in particular, systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
When George Langworthy and I directed Vanishing of the Bees in 2010, people questioned our theory behind Colony Collapse Disorder, but today there are more than 800 peer reviewed reports illustrating how harmful these poisons are.
Nicotine-based chemicals are mostly coated on seeds or entrenched in the soil, whereupon the plant takes up the chemical and incorporates it throughout, including in leaf tissue, nectar and pollen.
Neonicotinoids, which are now being compared to DDT, generate upward of $2.9 billion for our friends at Bayer and Syngenta, and are the most commonly used pesticides in the world.
In an online Q&A, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states outright that "Neonicotinoids have been strongly implicated as the cause of the decline of bees, in general, and for rusty patched bumble bees, specifically. The introduction of neonicotinoid use and the precipitous decline of this bumble bee occurred during the same time."
Listing the rusty-patched bumblebee as an endangered species would advance the fight against these pesticides by helping this country keep track of their effects. These poisons have managed to whittle down an entire pollinator species in a very short amount of time. And as we devolve into a society where misinformation abounds and critical thinking is at an all-time low, we absolutely need all the records possible.
"Bees and other pollinators have already waited long enough for strong federal protections," says Larissa Walker, Center For Food Safety's pollinator program director. "Postponing these types of protections needed is only going to make matters worse."