Insect Advocates: Albany Law School Students, Faculty Helping get American Bumblebee Recognized as Endangered Species

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American Bumble Bee

Read the petition.

A humble bumblebee is getting help it desperately needs from Albany Law School students and faculty.

A group of 14 students – with the unofficial moniker the “Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students” or “BPALS,” for short – and Professor Keith Hirokawa teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity to file a petition with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on February 1 to add the American bumblebee to the endangered species list through the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The law students’ work began back in 2019 during Hirokawa’s Environmental Law class and have been working with the Arizona-based Center on the project for almost a year.

“This was a fantastic experience. Law school can feel so abstract, and removed from the work we will be doing as lawyers. Having the opportunity to engage in real world work is an enormous gift, and a wonderful chance to gain unique experience into the different roles an attorney can play,” said Claire Burke ’21 who is president of the Law School’s Environmental Law Society and part of BPALS.

Other Albany Law students who helped with the petition are: Connor Cooney, Sarah Currie, Laurel Dean, David Dickinson, Theodore Fina, Catherine Kemp, Joseph Lansing, Emma Marshall, Conor Rourke, Ryan Whelpley, Kristopher Wilson, Daniel Young, and Emmet Zeller.

One of more than 250 bumblebee species, the American version is a general pollinator that isn’t picky about the plants it visits for nectar and pollen. That makes it a cornerstone of ecosystems and crop production throughout its native range over most of eastern North America. Therefore, the loss of the American bumblebee would have considerable consequences to American ecology and economics.

Habitat loss, pesticides, disease, climate change, and competition from honey bees have contributed to an 89% decline in relative abundance – a biodiversity metric of how common the species is relative to others throughout an area (in this case, its entire range) – of the American bumblebee over the past 20 years, according to the Center.

“It is unfortunate that we are forced to call upon the Endangered Species Act to protect a species so fundamental to human and ecosystem health,” said Hirokawa. “It is our hope that the Biden administration grasps the gravity of this moment.”

“When people think of ‘the law’ they probably picture courtrooms or skyscrapers, but we also need to consider the outdoors and nature itself. Bumblebees can’t speak for themselves. It is up to us to stand up for a creature that is a critical part of our ecosystem and economics,” said Burke.

Though many are familiar with other species of bulky bumblebees buzzing through their backyards, in New York state the American bumblebee has “suffered catastrophic decline” of 99% in relative abundance, according to experts at the Center. In Illinois, where the bee once represented one in four sightings, it has disappeared from the northern part of the state and is down 74% statewide since 2004.

“We’re asking President Biden to be the hero that steps up and saves the American bumblebee from extinction,” said Jess Tyler, an entomologist and staff scientist at the Center. “It’s unthinkable that we would carelessly allow this fuzzy, black-and-yellow beauty to disappear forever.”

The work on the petition is just one example of the impact that Albany Law School students are having on the environment. The Environmental Law Society adopted a two-year-old endangered red wolf named Martha last year, the students are improving recycling operations on campus, and there are plans to bring environmental employers with law-related opportunities—such as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation—to the law school to speak with students after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.  Albany Law students have also worked with planners in the cities of Cohoes and Rensselaer, testified at public hearings, and urged local legislatures to make progress on greening infrastructure projects. 

“It’s extremely important for the school to become involved in environmental protection projects. This is not an issue just for schools with large environmental law programs or with progressive agendas. Environmental protection is an issue everyone needs to participate in if we hope to see change in the future,” Burke said. “When Albany Law School puts its name and resources behind such efforts, it creates opportunities for the students to become involved and lends legitimacy to the efforts.”