Bumblebees may be protected as ‘fish’ under California court rules

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In a move that could allow a wide range of insects to be considered endangered species, the state Supreme Court has ruled that California bumblebees can be legally protected as a type of fish.

The ruling, which may have far-reaching consequences for the state’s agricultural industry, centers on the murky wording and complicated legal history of the California Endangered Species Act — a precursor to federal law.

The court said Wednesday evening that it would not hear arguments on whether the California Fish and Game Commission could consider granting protections to a number of bumblebee species whose populations are in steady decline. . For the past three years, almond growers, builders and pesticide companies in the state have argued that bumblebees were exempt from listing because the state’s conservation law did not mention the insects.

Writing for the court, however, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said that although the law does not use the word “insects”, sections of the law suggest that invertebrates can be lumped into the category of fish. . She also suggested that the Legislature “is able to make any legislative changes it deems necessary or expedient” to clarify these ambiguities in the Endangered Species Act.

Cantil-Sakauye also cautioned against misinterpreting the ruling as “an affirmative decision by this court that, under the law, bumblebees are fish.”

Wednesday’s decision was quickly welcomed by conservation groups.

“We are delighted with the California Supreme Court’s decision,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director at the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Now some of California’s most endangered pollinators could be saved from extinction.”

The dispute arose after a coalition of conservation groups led by the Xerces Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Food Safety in 2018 submitted a petition to protect four species: western, Franklin’s, Suckley and Crotch.

The California Fish and Game Commission voted to initiate the registration process, but several agricultural and pesticide industry interests, including the Almond Alliance of California, the California Assn. of Pest Control Advisors and the California Building Industry Assn. — challenged his decision.

They worried that listing all four species would open the door to protections for one of California’s more than 1,000 native bumblebee species, as well as countless other insects.

The controversy does not involve the scientifically cultivated bees that California’s farming communities depend on to pollinate and produce a third of the country’s vegetables and most of the world’s almonds.

However, the agriculture industry has complained that some of the native bees being considered for listing by the commission overlap with important agricultural areas where plowing, planting and harvesting activities could expose farmers and their workers. liability if protected bees are killed.

For example, the California Building Industry Assn., in court documents, suggested that the right to define land invertebrates as fish could “effectively make a criminal of anyone who has ever squashed a fly, squashed an ant, or eaten an aphid.” hidden in their skin. broccoli without a “fishing license”.

In Almond Alliance v California Fish and Game Commission, the groups complained that the Endangered Species Act explicitly allows the government to designate native species of “birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles or plants’, but excludes invertebrates such as bees.

The commission, however, argued that a separate section of the state’s Fish and Game Code defines fish as including “wild fish, molluscs, crustaceans, invertebrates, or amphibians.”

A Superior Court case ruled in favor of the industry groups.

In 2021, the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic intervened on behalf of the petitioners, who appealed.

In May, the trial court’s decision was overturned by an opinion from the California 3rd District Court of Appeals which found that the state legislature had defined the term “fish” as “a wild fish, a mollusc, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian or part, spawn or ova”. of any of these animals.

Therefore, the Endangered Species Act definition of “fish” is a legal technical term that extends beyond the commonly understood meaning of “fish”.

It remains to be seen whether the hotly contested conservation law will ever be reopened for an overhaul by combative actors. First passed in 1970, the California Endangered Species Act was repealed and replaced with an updated version in 1984 and amended in 1997.

News of the court ruling has the world of native bee enthusiasts abuzz with rare and encouraging news.

It’s a world that by its very nature seems to be pastoral and calm, but is riddled with problems including climate change, competition from farmed bees, dwindling habitat and pesticides.

One recent morning, as she awaited the Supreme Court’s decision, Krystle Hickman flew over clumps of buckwheat in the western Mojave Desert, using a camera to document the native bees. The insects, some of which are less than a quarter inch long, drank nectar and collected cargoes of pollen.

“People tend to think of ecology as very large, at the scale of the landscape,” the 37-year-old said. “But each of these bushes exists as a kind of densely populated universe in itself.”

The photographer and artist has spent the past few years developing identification materials and photo galleries designed to give people insight into often overlooked natural communities shared by insects, including native bees.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is great news for these insects,” Hickman said. “They are worthy of study, admiration and preservation.”

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Los Angeles Times

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