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Battle over California bee protection continues

The parties debated whether the California Endangered Species Act includes bumble bees.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In a four-year battle between conservation groups and California's leading agricultural organizations, an appeals court in the state Monday heard arguments as to whether or not native bumble bees should be protected under the California Endangered Species Act.

In 2018, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the Center for Food Safety, and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list four species of bumble bees as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Shortly after the vote to protect the bees, the California Fish and Game Commission was sued by large agricultural interests. The Almond Alliance of California, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Citrus Mutual and four other organizations claimed that listing the bees is outside the commission's rule since they aren't birds, reptiles, mammals, fishes, or amphibians.

The Sacramento Superior Court determined in 2020 that the commission did lack authority to protect native insects.

Now represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, the original listing petitioners and the commission are appealing the 2020 ruling. In the hearing Monday, the parties primarily debated the writing of act and how liberally terms can be taken. 

"This is not a case about whether bumble bees fit within the colloquial meaning of 'fish.' Instead, this is a case about fish as a term of art … as applied to CESA, a crucial conservation law which must be interpreted liberally," Jeffrey Reusch, an attorney for the conservationist groups and other challengers, said in his opening statement.

Reusch argued that the text shows that law can protect bees and other invertebrates. The wording classifies invertebrates as fish but does not require them to be aquatic or terrestrial animals. An example of an animal covered by this definition is the Trinity bristle snail, a land snail protected in 1980 as an invertebrate in the "fish" category. 

"The other items listed [in the fish category] are part aquatic. So I guess I look at that thinking, in context, should I interpret invertebrate to mean an invertebrate that is part aquatic?" asked Justice Andrea Lynn Hoch. 

Reusch answered in the negative and explained CESA covers the terrestrial pill bug, slugs, snails and frogs — all under the guise of "fish."

Benjamin Rubin, an attorney for the agricultural groups, noted that the commission hasn't added any insects to CESA since the 1980s. Rubin claims insects haven't been protected because the act doesn't allow insect protection. Hoch shot back, however, that those decisions would have been handled case by case and have no standing in long-term CESA interpretation. 

"The word of the statute are what prevail, and the statute here says 'invertebrates,' and it doesn't have a qualifying limitation of 'aquatic invertebrates,' so what you're trying to do is add words to the statute," Justice Ronald Robie told Rubin.

Native bumble bees are essential in maintaining California's ecosystems and agricultural economy. Between almonds, avocados, grapes and more, California is responsible for 12% of the country's agricultural value. According to the Center for Food Safety, 75% of vegetable and fruit plants have higher yields when visited by a pollinator such as a native bumble bee. Additionally, one-third of California's food production requires an animal pollinator. However, three of the four bee species populations have declined between 58%–98%, and the fourth hasn't been seen since 2006.

A final decision in this case should be made in approximately three months. 

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