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The endangered listing for the rusty patched bumblebee is finally given wings

A rusty patched bumblebee on Aug. 14, 2008, in Peoria, Ill. (Johanna James-Heinz via AP)

The rusty patched bumblebee’s path to the endangered list was as up and down as the way it flies.

After a years-long run-up to a determination early this year that it was eligible for the list, and a month-long delay for a newly required review by the Trump administration, the rusty patched on Tuesday became the first bumblebee — and the first bee overall in the continental United States — to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

As a result, the Natural Resources Defense Council said it could pull a lawsuit filed last month to challenge the delay. That suit could be replaced by another from a coalition of oil, housing developers, farm and energy lobbies that petitioned the Interior Department for a year-long delay in implementing the bee’s status.

Caught between warring conservationists and industry, the Interior Department walked a fine line in its announcement about the troubled bee’s new protection. “The department will work with stakeholders to ensure collaborative conservation among landowners, farmers, industry and developers.”

But is there common ground?

The American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Home Builders, National Cotton Council of America and two other groups described the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination under the Obama administration as a rush to judgment executed shortly before President Trump took over.

“The implications of this hasty listing decision are difficult to overstate,” their petition says. They called it one of the most significant in decades in terms of its scope because of the bee’s enormous range — 13 states, including Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Rusty patched bumblebees nest in underground colonies, sometimes in fields, causing worry for farmers. The coalition argued that the fast determination brushed aside hundreds of comments on their behalf and ignored “complex biological issues, ignored clear flaws in the science and data on which the service relied in listing the rusty patched bumblebee.”

What’s not complicated is the bee’s near disappearance from its entire range. The rusty patched bumblebee was so prevalent 20 years ago that pedestrians in Midwestern cities had to shoo them away. By the early 2000s, the rusty patched bee was decidedly less visible even in places such as Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, cities that were once buzzing with them.

Over the past two decades, the bee has declined in nearly 90 percent of its range. The list of suspected causes for the disappearance, according to the agency, reads like an environmental most-wanted list: farm pesticides, household herbicides, human development over bee habitat, disease and climate change.

Fish and Wildlife is still “developing a recovery plan to guide efforts to bring this species back to what they believe is a healthy … condition,” but an endangered designation triggers protections such as regulations against knowingly destroying the bumblebee’s habitat and habitat creation. It also raises awareness about the plight of the bumblebee and requires a detailed, long-term recovery plan to restore its population.

When the Interior Department delayed the designation last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council said the move was illegal and filed a lawsuit because it came without a public notice and public comment. “The science is clear — this species is headed toward extinction, and soon,” the NRDC said. “There is no legitimate reason to delay federal protections for this bee.”

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