US Federal Government Taking Aim at Protecting Pollinators

A guest post by Richard J Wenning, Editor-in-Chief, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (IEAM).

Next week is National Pollinator Week in the US (June 15-21, 2015), and a good time to consider the importance of bees, birds, butterflies, and bats for a healthy ecosystem. Pollinators contribute more than $24 billion annually to the US economy by tending to the vineyards, orchards, farmlands, nurseries, and countless acres of open space used by tourists every year. Pollinating requires a significant natural work force. But right now, nature’s workers are not doing so well.

Significant declines in honey bee populations in the US and elsewhere have been noted for at least a decade. An IEAM blog post from August 2014 alerted readers to the increasing attention devoted to the role pesticides might play in the disappearance of honey bees. The cause of the decline in the number of managed US bee colonies (6 million in 1947, 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and 2.5 million at present) remains unknown. Scientists believe pathogens, parasites, and both management and environmental stressors such as habitat loss and fragmentation, reduced floral biodiversity, and chemical use in agriculture and by homeowners are likely contributing factors.

The clearest example, at this moment, of the integration of science, government policy, and environmental management are the recent series of announcements from US federal agencies describing their action plans for protecting pollinators in North America. The announcements were inspired by the June 2014 memorandum from US President Obama, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” The President committed a Pollinator Health Task Force to achieve three goals: reduce honey bee losses, increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly, and restore or enhance 7 million acres of land as pollinator habitat.

US federal departments and relevant agencies have risen to the challenge and issued pollinator protection plans. Most notable, and no doubt because both are at the forefront of the science and economic debate, are commitments from two federal authorities most likely to lead efforts to protect and restore pollinators.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is committed to 1) the best available science to support protective decisions; 2) chemical-specific regulatory decisions that explicitly consider pollinator impacts in USEPA’s pesticide re-evaluation and registration programs; 3) risk management that creates space between bees and pesticides that are acutely toxic; 4) expedited review of mite control products; 5) measures that encourage and enhance pollinator habitat at the agency’s facilities, as well as at projects receiving funding from the green infrastructure and Superfund remediation programs; 6) pollinator friendly landscapes at USEPA-owned facilities; and, 7) evaluation and mitigation of pesticide impacts on monarch butterflies. Sharing similar goals and not to be outdone, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is committed to research and land management activities that will reduce overwintering losses; increase monarch butterfly populations; and, restore essential pollinator habitat.

Other federal departments and agencies take a more pragmatic approach, and understandably so, given their responsibilities and authority.

The US Department of Defense has committed its Natural Resources Program to support pollinator habitat restoration by directing the Military Services to use, when possible, pollinator-friendly native landscaping and integrated vegetation and pest management practices, as well reduce the use of potentially harmful pesticides. The US Department of Education promises to step up its Green Strides education program at schools, which includes planting pollinator-friendly garden habitats on campus. The US Department of Energy will emphasize best management practices at its energy and related facilities to preserve and protect pollinator habitat. The US Department of Interior will also focus on protecting, restoring, and enhancing pollinator habitat at their managed lands and facilities. The Department of State commits along with the General Services Administration to explore pollinator-friendly landscaping enhancements and integrated pest management practices at all facilities. The US Department of Transportation commits similar attention at its facilities, including planting pollinator gardens and reducing land maintenance to encourage increased flowering of grassland plants. The Housing Department, the National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and even the US Army Corps of Engineers made similar commitments to land and facility management activities that will support the President’s pollinator strategy.

Now, nearly one year later, three important science and environmental management strategy documents further enhance the President’s national commitment. On 11 May 2015, the USDA and Department of Interior released guidance for best management practices to enhance pollinator habitat on Federal lands. On 19 May, the President’s Pollinator Health Task Force issued its views on gaps in current knowledge of pollinators and pollinator declines, and identified priority research efforts to close those gaps. And on 29 May 2015 the USEPA announced its proposed plan for mandatory pesticide labeling restrictions to protect managed honey bees under contract pollination services from foliar application of pesticides that are known or suspected to be acutely toxic to bees on a contact exposure basis.

Rarely do science and government policy come together successfully. Let’s hope next week’s celebration of National Pollinator Week is the start of a successful concerted effort by the US federal government to protect one nature’s hardest working team of insects, birds, and bats.

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