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Endangered Bumblebees: Not Defined as ‘Wildlife’ Under California State Law

A recent court ruling blocked the proposed listing of four species of extremely rare bumblebees from being protected under the California Endangered Species Act. Back in June of 2019, the bees were designated as candidate species for listing.  This, like many things these days, went to court. Late in November the Sacramento Supreme Court finally came to a decision, saying that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has no jurisdiction over insects. Considering that there are easily 20,000 to 30,000 species of insects in the State, that is a lot of California's biodiversity that apparently is not wildlife.

Seems sort of crazy, but it comes down to antiquated California law developed in a time when few people recognized the critical role insects play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

According to California's Fish and Game Code, endangered species are defined as "a native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant which is in serious danger of becoming extinct." Insects are clearly not on that list, in danger of becoming extinct or not. Just to make it awkward, the code defines “fish” as "a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals."

Okay. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Using a bizarre extension of the transitive property…since insects are unequivocally invertebrates, and invertebrates are "fish" (according to the California Code), then insects might be covered under the definition of "fish." The Sacramento Supreme Court didn’t buy that logic and contends that “the word ‘invertebrates’ as it appears in Section 45’s definition of ‘fish’ clearly denotes invertebrates connected to a marine habitat, not insects such as bumble bees.”

Meanwhile, we see headlines about the decline of insects worldwide and the cascading impacts on human health, agriculture, and ecosystem function. A study in 2006 estimated “ecological services provided by insects in the United States to be at least $57 billion, an amount that justifies greater investment in the conservation of these services.” Hear hear! California needs to get with it. In a Bizzarro-World scenario where federal policy is more progressive than California policy, the recent court ruling does not impact the 23 species of insects that are federally listed as threatened or endangered on the Federal Endangered Species Act, including one species of bumble bee.  

We clearly know more now about the ecosystem level importance of insects than we did when the California Fish and Game Code was written. If insects are denied protection as “invertebrates” it is crucial that the Code be updated. It is unclear if this can happen quickly enough to save the four species of bumblebees that triggered litigation. In a world beset by pandemic it might seem like a luxury to worry about a few bees, but over the longer term we will need these bees and others to perform the ecosystem services that are critical to human health and healthy ecosystems. If you are interested in learning more about this case or insect conservation in general, you can find out more at the Xerces Society.

Featured photo is of a Crotch's Bumble Bee. Photo by Mary Duffy.

Posted by Michael Wall, Ph.D, Vice President of Science and Conservation.

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