Pollinator Conservation Crosses a National Threshold

The newly released National Strategy to Protect Pollinators and Their Habitat represents a threshold moment in pollinator conservation. Two decades ago, the issue was barely discussed. When Xerces staff attended a national meeting of the pioneering organizations in 1996, it could be held around a single conference table. Ten years ago, interest had grown and it needed a much larger room and many more tables to seat all the people. Thanks to the national strategy released by the White House, pollinator conservation is now embedded into the work of every federal agency.

That’s why the strategy is so significant and its release a cause for celebration. Does the strategy contain everything that everybody wanted to see? No. But the fact that pollinator conservation has reached the highest level of government is monumental. We would now need a stadium to hold everyone involved!

The national pollinator strategy has three overarching goals:

  • Honey Bees: Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter (overwintering mortality) to no more than 15% within 10 years.
  • Monarch Butterflies: Increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies occupying an area of approximately 15 acres (6 hectares) in the overwintering grounds in Mexico, through domestic/international actions and public-private partnerships, by 2020.
  • Monarch Butterflies: Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years through federal actions and public/private partnerships.

In addition to articulating these high level goals, and strategies to achieve them, the strategy includes a research plan that identifies mechanisms to fill knowledge gaps, and a joint U.S. Department of Agriculture/Department of the Interior document that presents best management practices (BMPs) for pollinator conservation and management on thousands of properties and millions of acres of federally managed lands.

There is no question that honey bees are vital to agriculture and that the health of hives and the economic wellbeing of beekeepers is a national priority. But the national strategy should—and does—take into account all of the nation’s pollinators. While the strategy itself gives little attention to bees other than honey bees, pollinators broadly speaking are addressed in the research plan and BMPs; this is especially important given declines in bumble bees and other native pollinators. Further, by focusing on habitat conservation, many crop-pollinating native bee species will benefit.

Seven million acres of restored or enhanced habitat is a laudable goal for the next five years. However, it will only start to address the habitat lost due to large-scale agricultural operations and urban and suburban sprawl. If we hope to create a landscape that can support the migration of the monarch butterfly, for example, it will be vital to go well beyond the seven-million-acre target.

One area where the pollinator strategy falls short is protecting pollinators from pesticides, especially systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world and there is a mountain of peer-reviewed research that shows the harm they are causing to pollinators and other wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expediting re-assessment of these systemic insecticides and proposing additional research—including into the impact of systemic insecticides on monarchs—but the EPA should take stronger action now to protect bees and other pollinators. The national strategy includes valuable long-term plans that could, over time, strengthen the pesticide regulatory system, but it fails to offer pesticide mitigations to address issues currently facing pollinators.

The release of the national pollinator strategy is enormously significant—but what happens next is even more important. The success of the strategy will be in its implementation, including adequate funding and appropriate actions by agencies. The strategy does not clearly lay out how much funding each agency will have to implement pollinator conservation, as some may be added to agency budgets, but in other cases agencies are shuffling around resources and priorities internally. The strategy does propose some additional funding for research—$21.84 million for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and $7 million to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Additionally the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service is committed to using $4 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to create habitat for honey bees in the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest. This is in addition to $8 million set aside by the Farm Service Agency to incentivize honey bee forage plantings in the Upper Midwest, and the enrollment of an additional 76,000 acres in high-value pollinator habitat nationwide. Beyond the national strategy, the NRCS has collaborated closely with the Xerces Society and other partners for several years to create a strong technical foundation for pollinator habitat efforts, using multiple Conservation Programs in all fifty states.

One significant issue is that the strategy only proposes an additional $1.5 million for the EPA to manage a myriad of pesticide issues that impact pollinators.

What we do know is that these agencies will need a considerable amount of money to meet the ambitious targets set out in the strategy, and it is unclear whether that funding is being provided through internal sources or additional appropriations.

Despite these concerns, we still believe this is an historic moment for pollinator conservation. Many federal agencies are implementing conservation strategies for pollinators, and Xerces’ pollinator specialists and conservation biologists already work closely with these agencies, providing technical assistance and helping with habitat projects and species conservation. We will continue to work with these agencies, as well as press for changes to pesticide regulation and seek greater protections for pollinating insects.

What will be the state of pollinator conservation ten years from now? It is impossible to predict, but it is certainly going to be better with the new national strategy than without it.

This blog was co-written by staff including Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director, and Matthew Shepherd, Communications Director.

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