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Franklin's bumblebees are in trouble

The federal government has proposed endangered species status for the Franklin’s bumblebee, last seen 13 years ago on Mount Ashland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision comes nine years after bee scientists sought its protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the proposal also states it is “not prudent” to designate critical habitat for the bee to recover.

While the bees need abundant wildflowers for their May through September flight season and cavities for nesting and breeding, Franklin’s bumblebees are “habitat generalists” with apparently plenty of intact habitat, according to the service.

First identified in 1921, Franklin’s bumblebees were once so numerous that backyard gardeners in Medford and Ashland used to see them slurping pollen on their flowers. But a Franklin’s bumblebee hasn’t been seen since a worker bee was discovered on the back side of Mount Ashland in 2006 during annual federal surveys conducted since 2004.

They have the smallest range of any bumblebee in North America, found only from Sutherlin south to the Mount Shasta area and between the Cascades and Coast mountain ranges.

The bees are likely impacted by a combination of disease, small numbers and pesticides, and the wide range of decline since the 1990s puts it at high risk of becoming extinct, the FWS states.

“The main causes of the decline are not habitat-related,” said FWS spokeswoman Elizabeth Materna in Portland. “Designating critical habitat would not have a direct or immediate beneficial effect.”

The FWS also said the proposed listing was not expected to impact many private landowners because the most recent sightings have been on high-elevation public lands.

The Xerces Society, which petitioned the government for an endangered species listing for the bee in 2010, welcomed the proposal, which set in motion a 60-day public comment period followed by more analysis and a final determination.

However, Rich Hatfield, the society’s senior conservation biologist, said it “seems really silly” that the service plans not to designate critical habitat for the bee deemed on the brink of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

“This bumblebee has the most narrow range of any bumblebee in the world, which to me suggests there’s something that is really important for it,” Hatfield said. “We don’t know what that is, but that doesn’t discount the need for designated critical habitat.”

Hatfield said Tuesday’s decision showed that the FWS was not willing to consider the bee extinct, and “I’m not ready to call it extinct either.”

Hatfield said he hopes increased and expanded surveys like the one done annually in parts of the Siskiyou Mountains near Ashland will help find pockets of the bees.

“The Siskiyous are pretty wild,” and a lot of its range has yet to be searched, Hatfield said.

Also, since 2016’s endangered species listing of the rusty patch bumblebee in the east of the Rocky Mountains, surveys in 2017 and 2018 found them in parts of West Virginia, where they were thought to have been extirpated, Hatfield said.

“It’s definitely still possible,” he said. “It’s a very small animal, and not very much of its range has been looked at.”

The Xerces Society was joined in 2010 in petitioning for the bee’s endangered status by Robbin Thorp, a renowned bee expert who died in June.

The FWS in 2011 deemed there was enough evidence to move forward with a review of the Franklin’s status, and it has sat on a prioritized list with other petitions until the recent decision.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

USFWS photo The Franklin's bumblebee has been proposed for listing as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.