The rusty patched bumblebee on Tuesday became the first officially endangered bee species in the continental U.S., overcoming objections from some business interests and a last-minute delay ordered by the Trump administration.
One of many bee types that have suffered steep population declines, the rusty patched has disappeared from about 90 percent of its range in the past 20 years. It previously was common across the East Coast and much of the Midwest, where it played a crucial role as a pollinator of crops and wild plants.
Its listing as an endangered species means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will devise a plan for returning the imperiled bee to “a healthy and secure condition,” the U.S. Department of Interior said. “We will work with stakeholders to ensure collaborative conservation among landowners, farmers, industry, and developers in the areas where the species is native.”
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which filed the petition that triggered the government’s consideration of the matter, said it was “thrilled to see one of North America’s most endangered species receive the protection it needs.”
“Now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered, it stands a chance of surviving the many threats it faces,” said Sarina Jepsen, the group’s director of endangered species.
Scientists say disease, pesticide exposure, habitat loss and climate change are among possible reasons for the decline of the bee, named for the rusty reddish patch on the backs of workers and males. Most of the grasslands and tallgrass prairies where they once thrived have been converted to farms or urban areas.
Advocates said they hoped the recovery plan would also help other struggling pollinators, including bees and the monarch butterfly.
The bee’s endangered listing, approved by the service shortly before President Barack Obama left office, had been scheduled to take effect Feb. 10. But the Trump administration, which has pledged to pare back federal regulations, said it would postpone the listing until Tuesday. Some environmental groups had feared it would be canceled altogether.
The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit over the delay, saying it had been ordered without required public notice and comment. On Tuesday, the group said the administration had “reversed course and listed the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species just in the nick of time.”
“Federal protections may be the only thing standing between the bumblebee and extinction,” said Rebecca Riley, senior attorney with the group.
Six business organizations petitioned the government earlier this month to push back the effective date to Jan. 11, 2018. The groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Home Builders, said the Obama administration had acted hastily without adequately considering how the designation would affect human activities.
“Once the listing decision takes effect, virtually every industry operating within the species’ range — from agriculture and crop production to residential and commercial development, from energy production and distribution to manufacturing — will be profoundly affected,” the petition said.
Too little is known about the bee’s underground nesting and hibernation sites for developers to determine whether their work would do harm, the industry groups said. That may force businesses to choose between “abandoning billions of dollars in economic activities” or “blindly risking” a violation of the Endangered Species Act by going ahead with their projects, the groups said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service posted information on its website about how to determine whether an area being considered for development is likely to host rusty patched bumblebees and ways to meet legal requirements for protecting them.
The law prohibits killing, harassing or otherwise harming listed animals, although people can obtain permits that excuse limited “takings” of endangered species as a result of doing things that otherwise are legal.