A California almond orchard. Growers say they are relieved that the Sacramento County Superior Court ruled in their favor that the state lacks authority to list four types of bumble bees as endangered species. But legal experts on both sides of the case say the fight may not be over. 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sacramento County Superior Court ruled last month that the state lacks the authority to list four types of bumble bees as endangered species.

Environmental groups called the decision “deeply disappointing;” farm groups lauded it as a “huge victory.”

But the ruling may not be the final word. The state may appeal the decision, and environmental groups say they plan to pursue alternative action.

“If these bees were listed as endangered, it would be devastating for the industry I represent,” said Elaine Trevino, president and CEO of the Almond Alliance of California, one of the plaintiffs.

In 2018, the Center for Food Safety, Defenders of Wildlife and Xerces Society petitioned the state Fish and Game Commission to list four species of native bumble bees — Franklin’s bumble bee, Crotch’s bumble bee, Suckley cuckoo bumble bee and the Western bumble bee — as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act, or CESA.

The commission began the listing process in 2019, but the Almond Alliance, California Farm Bureau, Western Growers and other groups sued, calling it an “overreach.”

These bees, environmental experts say, are seriously threatened.

Pamela Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said the species are facing “very, very concerning” population declines.

Sarina Jepsen, who directs the Xerces Society’s endangered species and aquatic program, said bumble bees are important to native ecosystems and agriculture. Bumble bees are especially important for pollinating eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes.

Paul Weiland, an attorney representing the alliance of farm groups, said listing bumble bees as endangered could harm farmers and orchardists.

“Part of the challenge is that the action would create regulatory uncertainty,” said Weiland.

Listing the bees as endangered would mean anyone who harms, kills or otherwise “takes” a bee would receive punishment — which might include fines or pesticide permits being revoked.

Although the Fish and Game Code exempts farmers from regulatory action if they accidentally kill a protected insect, Weiland said the listing would make “accidents” ambiguous.

The four types of bumble bees in the case, he said, are difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish from other bumble bees. If a farmer wasn’t sure what kind of bee was on the farm and continued spraying, would he or she be held responsible?

“The liability issues aren’t clear,” he said.

The farming community won the lawsuit because of how a definition was interpreted.

Insects typically cannot be listed as endangered. But the state Fish and Game Code’s definition of “fish” includes “invertebrates” as species that can be protected.

Both environmental and farm groups agreed “invertebrates” are not fish. Environmentalists said they used the broad definition to their advantage to extend protection to bumble bees. Farm groups argued the reference to “invertebrates” in the fish code was meant to cover aquatic life such as jellyfish, not terrestrial invertebrates.

Farm groups are happy they won the case but concerned the fight isn’t over.

“(The state) certainly could pursue an appeal,” said Weiland, the farm groups’ attorney. “But I hope they wouldn’t, frankly.”

Even if the decision stands, environmental groups say they might pursue legislation.

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