Presidential Memorandum Creates Federal Strategy to Promote Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators

by Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.
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On June 20, 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum entitled "Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators." The memorandum creates a Pollinator Health Task Force, which will be co-chaired by the U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Task Force will develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy, which includes a Pollinator Research Action Plan, Public Education Plan, and public-private partnerships. In addition, Task Force members will take steps to increase and improve pollinator habitat. The Presidential memorandum is available online.

Various stakeholders anticipated some kind of Presidential activity during Pollinator Week, and these pronouncements establish some new initiatives that are not likely too controversial among the pesticide registrant community. Nevertheless, their issuance and activities that will take place as a result of them bear close attention and monitoring from the registrant community, particularly as advocacy groups may see the actions as too little.

Actions under the Presidential Memorandum

Under the Presidential memorandum, the Pollinator Health Task Force has 180 days to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy, which shall include explicit goals, milestones, and metrics to measure progress. The memorandum states that the Strategy shall include the following components:

  1. Pollinator Research Action Plan. The Strategy shall include an Action Plan (Plan) to focus federal efforts on understanding, preventing, and recovering from pollinator losses;
  2. Public Education Plan. The Strategy shall include plans for expanding and coordinating public education programs outlining steps individuals and businesses can take to help address the loss of pollinators. It shall also include recommendations for a coordinated public education campaign aimed at individuals, corporations, small businesses, schools, libraries, and museums to increase significantly public awareness of the importance of pollinators and the steps that can be taken to protect them; and
  3. Public-Private Partnerships. The Strategy shall include recommendations for developing public-private partnerships to build on federal efforts to encourage the protection of pollinators and increase the quality and amount of habitat and forage for pollinators. In developing this part of the Strategy, the Task Force shall consult with external stakeholders, including state, tribal, and local governments, farmers, corporations, and non-governmental organizations.

To increase and improve pollinator habitat, the Presidential memorandum calls for the following actions within 180 days, unless otherwise specified:

  1. Task Force member agencies shall develop and provide to the Task Force plans to enhance pollinator habitat, and subsequently implement, as appropriate, such plans on their managed lands and facilities, consistent with their missions and public safety;
  2. Task Force member agencies shall evaluate permit and management practices on power line, pipeline, utility, and other rights-of-way and easements, and, consistent with applicable law, make any necessary and appropriate changes to enhance pollinator habitat on federal lands through the use of integrated vegetation and pest management and pollinator-friendly best management practices, and by supplementing existing agreements and memoranda of understanding with rights-of-way holders, where appropriate, to establish and improve pollinator habitat;
  3. Task Force member agencies shall incorporate pollinator health as a component of all future restoration and reclamation projects, as appropriate, including all annual restoration plans;
  4. The Council on Environmental Quality and the General Services Administration shall, within 90 days, revise their respective guidance documents for designed landscapes and public buildings to incorporate, as appropriate, pollinator-friendly practices into site landscape performance requirements to create and maintain high quality habitats for pollinators. Future landscaping projects at all federal facilities shall, to the maximum extent appropriate, use plants beneficial to pollinators;
  5. The USDA and Department of the Interior shall, within 90 days, develop best management practices for executive departments and agencies to enhance pollinator habitat on federal lands;
  6. The USDA and Department of the Interior shall establish a reserve of native seed mixes, including pollinator-friendly plants, for use on post-fire rehabilitation projects and other restoration activities;
  7. The USDA shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, substantially increase both the acreage and forage value of pollinator habitat in the USDA's conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, and provide technical assistance, through collaboration with the land-grant university-based cooperative extension services, to executive departments and agencies, state, local, and tribal governments, and other entities and individuals, including farmers and ranchers, in planting the most suitable pollinator-friendly habitats;
  8. The Department of the Interior shall assist states and state wildlife organizations, as appropriate, in identifying and implementing projects to conserve pollinators at risk of endangerment and further pollinator conservation through the revision and implementation of individual State Wildlife Action Plans. The Department of the Interior shall, upon request, provide technical support for these efforts, and keep the Task Force apprised of such collaborations;
  9. The Department of Transportation shall evaluate its current guidance for grantees and informational resources to identify opportunities to increase pollinator habitat along roadways and implement improvements, as appropriate. The Department of Transportation shall work with state departments of transportation and transportation associations to promote pollinator-friendly practices and corridors. The Department of Transportation shall evaluate opportunities to make railways, pipelines, and transportation facilities that are privately owned and operated aware of the need to increase pollinator habitat;
  10. The Department of Defense shall, consistent with law and the availability of appropriations, support habitat restoration projects for pollinators, and shall direct military service installations to use, when possible, pollinator-friendly native landscaping and minimize use of pesticides harmful to pollinators through integrated vegetation and pest management practices;
  11. The Army Corps of Engineers shall incorporate conservation practices for pollinator habitat improvement on the 12 million acres of lands and waters at resource development projects across the country, as appropriate;
  12. EPA shall assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bee and other pollinator health and take action, as appropriate, to protect pollinators; engage state and tribal environmental, agricultural, and wildlife agencies in the development of state and tribal pollinator protection plans; encourage the incorporation of pollinator protection and habitat planting activities into green infrastructure and Superfund projects; and expedite review of registration applications for new products targeting pests harmful to pollinators; and
  13. Executive departments and agencies shall, as appropriate, take immediate measures to support pollinators during the 2014 growing season and thereafter. These measures may include planting pollinator-friendly vegetation and increasing flower diversity in plantings, limiting mowing practices, and avoiding the use of pesticides in sensitive pollinator habitats through integrated vegetation and pest management practices.

EPA Activities

On June 20, 2014, EPA announced the release of two tools as part of its ongoing actions to protect pollinators:

  • Pollinator Risk Assessment Guidance: The Guidance is part of a long-term strategy intended to advance the science of assessing the risks posed by pesticides to bees, giving risk managers the means to further improve pollinator protection in EPA's regulatory decisions. EPA states that it anticipates the Guidance will allow it to assess effects from systemic pesticides quantitatively on individual bees, as well as on bee colonies. According to EPA, it is already implementing elements of the Guidance in its ongoing registration review of neonicotinoid pesticides, as well as in its other pesticide regulatory work. EPA is currently reviewing new data required of registrants, including refined semi-field studies under more real-world application conditions. Other data from ongoing full-field studies will take up to several years to complete. The Guidance is available online.
  • Residual Time to 25 Percent Bee Mortality (RT25) Data Now Online: At the request of beekeepers and growers alike, EPA has posted its RT25 data online. EPA states that bees may be susceptible to harm from direct exposure to pesticides sprayed on flowering plants, but pesticide residues generally decrease in toxicity as the spray dries and time passes. According to EPA, farmers and beekeepers can use EPA's RT25 data to gauge the amount of time after application that a particular pesticide product remains toxic enough under real-world conditions to kill 25 percent of bees that are exposed to residues on treated plant surfaces. EPA notes that some have used this information to select pesticide products with shorter periods in which the chemicals remain active and can affect bees. The data are available online.

Commentary

Some kind of Presidential activity during Pollinator Week was widely anticipated. These pronouncements establish some new initiatives without being too controversial among the pesticide registrant community (and so among some advocacy groups it was seen as possibly a missed opportunity). Important to note is that these policies were not rolled out in person by the President or First Lady (who now has a beehive colony on White House grounds), and were not seen as forging significant new ground in the pollinator protection debate. At the same time, the emphasis on enhancing habitat, coordinating research, and the review of possible pesticide impacts does signal the continued importance of the pollinator issue to the Obama Administration.

It does capture much of what the most recent Farm Bill covered in the same space: mandates for research and federal agency coordination, and as a Presidential directive, it does give these efforts some additional emphasis. It also continues the current practice of the President acting by unilateral policy pronouncements and Executive Orders. Before the pollinator issue became a more significant "political" issue, many in the beekeeper community identified increased and improved habitat as the most significant factor that could enhance pollinator health, along with the need to develop products and procedures to protect colonies from the impact of the varroa mite. This is not to dismiss the role of pesticides, but the efforts to reduce and avoid exposure to bees from pesticides has been an issue for decades before the most recent debates about pollinator health (bees, as insects, are sensitive to exposure to insecticides -- this is not a new issue).

Over time, some of the activities announced in this directive may have significant impact even if they now seem routine or small in scale: better access to federal lands by beekeepers, highway maintenance procedures to enhance pollinator forage, and more or better targeted research into the varroa mite and other pathogens may turn out to be very important steps to better pollinator health. This will likely not stop calls for pesticide bans or stronger enforcement of label requirements to avoid exposure of bees to insecticides, but better, more reliable data about what is actually happening in the pollinator world (e.g., are the number or vitality of colonies on the increase or decrease) will also greatly contribute positively to this policy debate over the next few years.

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