In a decision affecting electric cooperatives from the Upper Midwest to Virginia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to designate critical habitat protections for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee.

The agency said it is unnecessary to regulate activities that may impinge on this species’ habitat because it has varied nesting and feeding options in the region where it lives. The agency listed the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered in 2017 and began to probe whether a critical habitat designation was also necessary.

“We have now determined that such a designation would not be prudent,” the agency said in the Sept. 1 Federal Register notice announcing its decision. “The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of habitat is not the primary threat to the species, and the availability of habitat does not limit the conservation of the rusty patched bumble bee now, nor will it in the future.”

NRECA said it supports the agency’s finding while encouraging its member co-ops to continue their wide-ranging efforts to conserve wildlife habitat and support pollinators that are vital to crops nationwide.

Many co-ops host acres of pollinator gardens with native foliage and target vegetation management and mowing practices in rights of way to protect various species. Co-ops are also voluntarily signing a conservation agreement with assurances from the USFWS to protect the monarch butterfly, which may gain federal protections in December.

“If this decision on the rusty patch’s habitat had gone the other way, co-ops could have faced project delays, increased compliance requirements, and added costs,” said Janelle Lemen, NRECA regulatory issues director. “The USFWS finding is a prime example of how proactive measures by co-ops and others to conserve pollinator habitat can help prevent added species protections that could restrict the ability of co-ops to cost-effectively manage rights of way.”

According to the USFWS, the rusty patched bumble bee population has dropped 88% since 1999, and its range has narrowed from 31 to 11 states. A full explanation of this decline remains elusive, but the species appears to be most harmed by disease and pesticides as the bee’s woodland habitat and food sources remain relatively plentiful, the agency said.

“The rusty patched bumble bee is a habitat generalist, considered to be flexible with regard to its habitat requirements. The species occupies a variety of habitats, including prairies, woodlands, marshes, agricultural landscapes, and residential parks and gardens,” the USFWS said.

“Across the historical range of the species, there appears to be abundant suitable habitat for rusty patched bumble bees to occupy in the future should their numbers rebound. Due to the rusty patched bumble bee’s general habitat requirements, we expect sufficient habitat to remain available to the species into the future.”