January 26, 2017

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Endangered

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On January 11, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a final rule listing the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (“ESA”), as amended. This is the first bumble bee to be declared endangered in the United States, and the first bee of any kind in the contiguous 48 states. The listing takes effect on February 10, 2017.

What does this mean to developers?

Not much yet, but it should be watched closely. Impacts will become known as the USFWS develops a recovery plan for the species. While direct impacts from renewable energy projects are not expected to be an issue, such as bat strikes at wind farms, habitat loss and pesticides will be a key concern. In the view of the USFWS, the plight of the rusty patched bumble bee is not an isolated occurrence, but a symptom of widespread decline of other bumble bees and many other insect pollinators. Threats to the rusty patched bumble bee include fungal infections contracted from commercial bee populations, climate change, and pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which were recently found to harm bee colonies. These are broad-ranging concerns that could allow broad-ranging actions. 

These habitat and land-use concerns could lead to impacts on conversion of land for wind and solar projects where infrastructure will impact grasslands or native areas. It could also impose limits on maintenance activities of vegetated areas through mitigating pesticide use in the bees' habitats. Even actions as simple as mowing roadsides could affect this ground-nesting bumblebee. 

It will also likely further mobilize special interest groups for more broad-ranging insect protections. These groups could use it as a technical point of concern and seek to impact renewable energy developments through this issue. 

Conversely, it could open up opportunities for proactive mitigation through targeted planting plans to create new habitat. Each bee species has specific vegetation preferences. Targeted plantings could create habitat for select species, such as the rusty patched bumble bee, or other species such as the monarch butterfly. Solar developers have used this approach to benefit the environment and gain public and regulatory support. 

Where does the species occur?

Once common and abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces, the rusty patched bumble bee has experienced a swift and dramatic decline since the late 1990s. Today, only scattered populations remain in 13 states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — and the Canadian province of Ontario, and populations have declined by 87 percent over the past few decades, say USFWS researchers in a report published in June 2016.

The species joins seven species of yellow-faced bees found in Hawaii on the endangered list. It is one of 47 bumble bee species in North America.

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