Environmental groups attempt to add insects to endangered species list

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By Craig W. Anderson

Three environmental groups, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Fish and Game Commission tried to add four subspecies of bumblebees to the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) by protecting the insects as fish invertebrates are protected.

Sacramento County Judge James Arguelles said, “A mental leap is required to conclude that bumblebees may be protected as fish” in rejecting the listing attempt. He also commented, “The absence of authority to list insects under CESA, either as fish or otherwise, is clear.”

The groups pressing the commission for adding bees to the CESA included the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Food Safety; the groups began their campaign in 2018, citing agriculture and livestock activity as menacing the four bumblebee species along with increased crop-protection materials usage and competition with managed honeybees.

SJC bee friendly county

“These groups attempted to change the state ESA stealthily, evidently hoping no one would notice,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “I won’t be surprised if environmental groups try to include a higher number of insects, including pests, in the future.”

He pointed out that San Joaquin County is already a “bee friendly county with programs in place to prevent situations bad for bee health. This was a very positive decision by the judge, which we support.”

California Farm Bureau Federation, the Almond Alliance of California and five other agricultural groups had sued to stop the expansion of the CSEA to include insects, which are not covered by the act.

Listing sets stage for more regulations

The Alliance said in a press release that “Listing bumblebees as threatened or endangered is setting the stage for how other insect pollinators will be defined, regulated and protected.”

The Alliance pointed out that presently, no insects are listed as threatened or endangered under the CESA; the California Office of Administrative Law and the California Office of the Attorney General have previously taken the position that insects cannot be listed under CESA; and the CESA defines candidate, threatened, and endangered species as “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile or plant.” The list does not include insects.

Governmental overreach

The agricultural groups agreed that pollinators are vital to many natural habitats and valuable contributors to the success of agriculture but the state agencies – the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Fish and Game Commission – had overreached by trying to add four subspecies of bumblebees as candidates for endangered species protection.

In June 2019, the California Fish and Game Commission had voted to give four bumblebee subspecies candidacy status using the fish ploy. The bees being used in the invertebrate fish scheme were: the Crotch bumblebee, Franklin’s bumblebee, Suckley cuckoo bumblebee and the Western bumblebee.

CESA is scary

“Anything involving the California Endangered Species Act is scary,” said SJFB President David Strecker. “Emotions take over and science goes out the window. In cases like this, the groups and government agencies tend to push things through without considering the ripple effect that can cause new problems.”

Bee industry solid, candidacy dangerous

San Joaquin County’s honey, pollination and miscellaneous bee contributions to the agricultural crop value was $37.9 million in 2019, making the industry a solid contributor to the county’s economy.

When a species is given candidacy status it has the same protections as species listed as threatened or endangered, including pesticide restrictions, grazing rules and other imposed regulations.

This includes prohibitions on killing the bees which the Department of Fish and Wildlife routinely interprets as extending harm to the bees or their habitat; uncertainty could arise regarding the presence of bees in fields or other agricultural areas. For instance, ripping or other soil movement could be considered disrupting potential nesting sites.

Bad precedent for ag

“Adding the four bumblebee subspecies to the state’s list of endangered species would have been precedent-setting because insects currently aren’t listed,” said CFBF Associate Counsel Sunshine Saldivar. She said listing the bumblebees would have had huge impacts for California’s farmers and ranchers.

“If the bumblebees were listed, it would have required several changes to how farming practices occur in California, from grazing to the use of pesticides and herbicides,” she said. “Ultimately, we were happy with the court’s decision.”

According to the Almond Alliance, listing the bumblebees could regulate placement of or reduce the number of honey bee hives, as the environmental groups specifically list honey bees as a threat to the bumblebees.

A major point in agriculture’s winning the suit is that the state ESA specifically defines its authority over birds, mammals, fishes, amphibians, reptiles or plants; nowhere are insects included. However, the commission said it had authority to protect land-dwelling invertebrates –like bumblebees – under the same authority that allows its protection of invertebrate fish.

Clear evidence, Judge says

This logic, or lack of it, caused Arguelles to say the “commission had exceeded its authority” by assigning candidate species to the bees and that there is “clear evidence” California’s Legislature did not intend the CESA to protect invertebrates categorically.

Enviro groups will keep trying

About the environmental groups who got the commission to declare the four subspecies of bumblebees “candidates” for threatened or endangered status, SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel said, “They’ll try again; evidently they don’t care about the costly and dangerous disruption listing bees can cause. Bees are too important to mess with; too many crops – almonds, cherries, cotton, apples, pears, prunes and others – depend on bees.”

He also noted that San Joaquin County agriculture protects bees and the apiary industry.

Bees need protection not stifling regulations

“Bees need to be protected,” said SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel. He said the county has implemented the Bee aWare program which works well. “The Almond Board has done a lot of work on bee protection and getting farmers and bee keepers to work on being compliant and farmers, growers and bee keepers using good management practices regarding bees,” he said.

Samuel also said bee keeping has sufficient challenges and doesn’t need the state complicating matters by listing bees and threatening a successful ag industry. “They’re dealing with colony collapse, rebuilding from a drought and mites that kill bees and hives, among other things.”

What’s next?

Next up is probably an approach to the state Legislature to modify the CESA concerning insects. Hopefully, those affected most by such adjustments will be consulted to ensure a workable solution is found.

The successful plaintiffs, in addition to the CFBF and the Almond Alliance of California, were: California Association of Pest Control Advisers, California Citrus Mutual, California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association, Western  Agricultural Processors Association and Western Growers; the Western Plant Health Association also supported the litigation.


The California Farm Bureau Federation contributed to this story.