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Afton to create habitat for endangered bee species

The City of Afton plans to partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when construction downtown is completed this fall. Photo by Youssef Rddad

The City of Afton plans to create new habitats for an endangered bee species, amid concerns the city’s downtown construction project could have a negative impact on the bees’ environment.

Earlier this month, Citizens For Valley Creek, a nonprofit environmental group, asked the city to halt construction on the city's sewer project after hiring a local wildlife biologist to survey the area for signs of the rusty patched bumblebee.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed this species of bee as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in January. The act offers protection to species at risk of extinction and went into effect March 21 for the rusty patched bee.

The bee was once widespread along the East Coast, Midwest and parts of Canada, but have seen sharp population declines since the turn of the century, according to FWS.

The federal agency development, disease and use of pesticides as factors for habitat degradation.

Local wildlife biologist Christopher Smith, who Citizens for Valley Creek hired, determined the area in and around Afton’s downtown may be suitable rusty patched bumblebee habitats in an April 1 survey.

“I recommend an additional vegetation assessment during the growing season to better assess habitat suitability,” Smith wrote in a report. He also recommended the city work with the FWS to conduct further surveys of the area.

Afton City Administrator Ron Moorse said the agency didn’t indicate rusty patched bee habitats were present in the downtown area.

“This specific site isn’t a particularly good habitat,” he said. “They don't have any problem with us moving forward with our construction.”

In light of Citizens for Valley Creek’s concerns, the city plans to partner with FWS in removing invasive plant species, as well as planting milkweed, snapdragons and other seeds rusty patched bees pollinate.

The partnership would likely take place sometime after construction wraps up in the fall, Moorse said.

Citizens for Valley Creek members are now questing if the city and the federal agency followed the appropriate procedure.

Jim Golden, a member of the nonprofit, said construction work resumed after the group contacted the FWS and Afton city leaders with the survey results.

He added there have also been rusty patched bee sightings in Afton in the past.

“We’re considering our legal options now,” Golden said. "Our biggest concern is that they didn't do a survey. Instead, they rushed it.”

Citizens for Valley Creek, a vocal opponent of the downtown construction project, have been critical of the project’s cost, as well as impacts on Native American cultural heritage and the environment.

Last fall, representatives from the Ho-Chunk Nation raised objections, saying construction might disturb an American Indian burial mound. The city reached an agreement with tribal government leaders and it would reroute piping around the Rattlesnake Effigy mound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved construction permits for the project after the rusty patched bumble bee’s listing on the endangered species list.

The $19 million downtown project includes constructing municipal sewer system and stormwater systems, as well as rebuilding the flood levee and St. Croix Trail.

Construction began earlier this month.

Protecting pollinators

With more than 400 species of bees, moths and butterflies in Minnesota, state and county officials have become increasingly sensitive about protecting and replenishing their populations because of the role they play in transferring pollen to plants.

“That is extremely important,” said Washington County natural resources director Dan MacSwain. The sharp decline in pollinators could also yield a devastating impact on local food supplies, he added.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that are grown in the U.S. depend on bees.

Elected officials in Washington County approved a resolution last year that focuses on protecting and restoring pollinator habitats in county roads, parks and other public areas.

In the past year, MacSwain's department has noted improvements in pollinator habitats, especially near highways where pollinators tend to travel. Invasive species, like buckthorn and noxious weeds, were overtaking areas where native and pollinator-friendly species once grew.

Private properties also provide needed habitats for pollinators, MacSwain said.

"Even small habitat patches in a backyard is beneficial. It's a nectar resource," he said. "If people are able to plant that in their backyard -- even a little bit here and there -- it adds up."

For those interested in creating spaces for pollinators in their yards, MacSwain suggests planting small areas and following the Minnesota Board of  Water and Soil’s  ‘pollinator toolkit’ on the agency’s website.