Ryan Knappenberger

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge sided with environmental organizations on Friday over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to not designate critical habitat for an endangered species of bumblebee, ruling the agency must reconsider its decision for the species.

The rusty patched bumblebee, a native species found throughout the eastern and upper Midwestern U.S. and parts of Canada, has lost up to 99.9% of its habitat since Europeans settled in North America, according to Fish and Wildlife's 2017 decision to add the bee to the list of endangered and threatened wildlife.

However, the agency also argued that habitat loss and degradation were not the driving causes of the species’ decreasing population, and placed the blame on pesticides and pathogens.

The distinction led the agency to rule in September 2020 that it was not “prudent” to designate critical habitat for the species, explaining that because the bee is “flexible with regard to its habitat use for foraging, nesting and overwintering, the availability of habitat does not limit the conservation of the rusty patched bumblebee now, nor will it in the future.”

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in her decision that the agency failed to treat the habitat loss with the appropriate gravity, finding that even if it was not the primary threat to the species, it was a threat, nonetheless.

She said the agency made distinctions regarding the potential benefit of a critical habitat by making its decision based on whether it would have a “meaningful benefit. The legal standard requires the agency to determine whether a critical habitat “would not be beneficial” in order to deny the designation.

The decision was challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas in March 2021 with the goal of securing a critical habitat for the bee.

Lucas Rhoads, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, welcomed Jackson’s decision but expressed frustration that the group had to again take legal action to ensure protection for an endangered species.

“Our critical pollinators are disappearing, and the least we can do is protect the areas that these species call home,” Rhoads said in a statement Monday. “The court’s decision makes clear that this isn’t just a moral imperative, but a legal one. The Service now must act quickly to protect the bee’s habitat before it is too late.”

According to a 2019 study from the University of Minnesota, the rusty patched bumblebee has suffered an 87% decline since 1999, and as of 2018, there were only 471 of the bees seen anywhere in the world.

Members of the environmental organizations submitted statements to the court, describing the value of the bee and its importance to both their lives and the ecosystem in areas like Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where many go specifically to see the bee.

Clay Bolt, a member of the council, said that the bee has played a significant role in his work as a natural history and conservation photographer, which includes a documentary focused on the rusty patched bumble bee.

He said he has not seen the bee since 2018, and he is concerned he may never see it again because of the agency’s decision.

“It would be incredibly painful to me to no longer be able to go out and photograph the bee and spend time with it,” Bolt said in his statement. “I am concerned that without critical habitat for this species, my continued ability to see and photograph the bee is in danger.”