Heather Bell/USFWS

Environment

PSA: ESA may go AWOL. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday held a hearing to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Washington Post reports. The session was led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who argued against the law’s effectiveness with a simple metaphor: it’s like a doctor who saves only 3 out of 100 of his patients, he said, given that 97 percent of all species ever listed under the act remain endangered. Others argue in favor of looking at it another way: the ESA is like a hospital that saved more than 99 percent of its patients from succumbing to cancer. (Less than one half of one percent of listed species have gone extinct since the law was passed in 1973.)

The executive order freezing all pending federal legislation has placed the bee’s endangered designation in doubt.

Though the hearing convened a number of different perspectives—a representative from the Farm Bureau said that the act keeps farmers from using their land efficiently, while the president of Defenders of Wildlife said that the act basically works as intended, but needs more funding—critics see the hearing as the latest sign that congressional Republicans seek to defang the act, or destroy it entirely. According to the Post, Barrasso said last month that his efforts would be geared towards “eliminating a lot of the red tape and the bureaucratic burdens that have been impacting our ability to create jobs.” And House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop recently told the Associated Press that the act had been “hijacked” and that he would do his best to “invalidate” it.

So: what does this have to do with food?

A lot, actually. As we reported in November, one of Obama’s last acts before he left office was to add the rusty patched bumble bee, an agricultural pollinator, to the official list of species protected by the ESA. And while congress debates the merits of the law, the executive order freezing all pending federal legislation has placed the bee’s endangered designation in doubt. It would be the first bumble bee to be placed on the list, and its placement there could impact agricultural policies in the Great Plains—its habitat—and the heart of industrial cropland.

The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to look at all of the decisions it’s making and consider the impact on endangered species.

“This bee is just one of many bees that are in trouble. And things that will help the rusty patched bumble bee recover, like expanding habitat, reducing pesticide use, and addressing pathogens will help other bee species,” says Rebecca Riley, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing the Trump administration for suspending the rule—illegally, in its view.

No one knows what the legal fate of the rusty patched will be. But I’d been watching this with interest even before Trump was elected. I anticipated a Hillary Clinton presidency, and wondered: Out in corn country, would the federal government starting forcing farmers to take steps to protect the rusty patched?

“The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to look at all of the decisions it’s making and consider the impact on endangered species,” Riley says. “So that means that when EPA is reviewing pesticides, the neonicotinoids, which are the class of pesticides that are causing a problem for bees … if this is bee listed, they’ll have to look at the impact of those pesticides on the bee and take steps to try to minimize the impact.”

Could pollinator-friendly practices, from polyculture to pesticide reduction, be requirements for ESA compliance? And what would happen when a powerful regulation (the ESA) bumped up against against a politically powerful bloc (Big Ag)?

Now, with Trump as commander-in-chief, we may never know. Which reminds me—some sources are saying that, before the end of the week, Senate Republicans will move to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Joe Fassler bio

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is New Food Economy's senior editor. His food safety and public health reporting has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism. Follow him @joefassler.