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Guest opinion: Robert Ukeiley: The Southern Plains bumblebee is vanishing. Here’s how we can save it.

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By Robert Ukeiley

As bumblebees go, it’s one of the nation’s largest, a handsome black-and-yellow critter that for thousands of years has played a critical role in pollinating native plants on the sweeping short-grass prairies extending from the Rockies into the Great Plains.

But the Southern Plains bumblebee is plunging toward extinction. That reality provides a disturbing report card on what a poor job we’re doing of preserving the natural landscape that makes Colorado so special.

It’s also giving us an unblinking look at what it’s going to take to do a better job of that.

The good news is that there is a proven path forward for saving this bumblebee and its short-grass habitat.

But for the Southern Plains bumblebee, time is running very short.

Due largely to pesticide-intensive monoculture agriculture, habitat destruction by cattle, unchecked development and climate chaos, this bee is now half as abundant as it was historically. The species has disappeared from six of the 26 states it once inhabited.

That’s why this week the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend Endangered Species Act protections to the bee.

The plight of the bee is intricately linked to the health of grasslands, which are considered among the most at-risk ecosystems on the planet. Yet, in the Great Plains we’re continuing to destroy areas of grasslands the size of four football fields every single day.

The short-grass prairies that once covered most of Colorado east of the Rockies have now declined by almost 50%.

Like many residents of the greater Boulder area, I have worked for decades on helping to restore that important habitat, both with the U.S. Forest Service in the Pawnee National Grasslands, as well as with Boulder County, the cities of Boulder and Westminster and local conservation groups.

I also spend a lot of time improving pollinator habitat on my property and my neighbors’ properties in the foothills of the southern Great Plains, as well as in the Roosevelt National Forest, which adjoins my property.

And that important regional conservation work must continue.

But the troubling rate at which the Southern Plains bumblebee is vanishing makes clear that our efforts must be bolstered by the protections that can be provided only by the Endangered Species Act.

The evidence is strong that we can reverse the bee’s downward trend with the help of the Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99% of the species under its protection and put the great majority of those species on the road to recovery.

With nearly half of Colorado’s short-grass prairies now converted to farming and other uses, it’s clear we need that extra protection right now.

The evidence from beyond Colorado is equally compelling.

The bee’s grassland habitats across the Southern Plains are increasingly degraded. Recent records of Southern Plains bumblebee observations indicate a 75% decline in Oklahoma, a 78% decline in Texas and a 63% decline in Alabama.

Sadly, the Southern Plains bumblebee is not the only grasslands pollinator species facing a dangerous decline.

Just last week, monarch butterflies were listed as endangered by the foremost voice in international biodiversity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the once very common rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered and is considering doing the same for the nation’s most widely known bumblebee — the American bumblebee.

For all those reasons, we all need to continue to do our part to protect bumblebees by refraining from using pesticides, buying organic food when possible, planting native pollinator gardens and advocating for grassland protection.

I know that I’m happiest when I’m working with my fellow volunteers planting native seeds, pulling old fences and helping wildlife to return to the landscapes they have inhabited for thousands of years.

So, I know that work will continue.

But the sharp decline of the Southern Plains bumblebee is the latest evidence showing we need the Biden administration to move forward with granting our most-imperiled bumblebees the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Failing to do so would be choosing to allow these important pollinators to go extinct.

Robert Ukeiley is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. He lives in Boulder. 

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