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Shrinking of Utah National Monument May Threaten Bee Biodiversity

The Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to 660 bee species, 84 of which will live outside of protected land under changes

From left, small and large carpenter bees (Ceratina and Xylocopa, respectively, visit a wild rose in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Joseph S. Wilson, USU)
smithsonian.com

In December of last year, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation announcing his plans to shrink Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to nearly half of its original size. Comprising a remote and beautiful stretch of canyons, cliffs and desert, the monument is home to a huge range of biodiversity, including hundreds of bee species. And some of those buzzing critters could be imperilled by the planned modifications, according to a new study.

As Katarina Zimmer reports for National Geographic, research published last month in the journal PeerJ found that 660 bee species make their home in the Grand Staircase-Escalante, among them 49 species that are new to science. Over the course of four years, scientists catalogued black and yellow bees, red bees, turquoise bees, social bees, solitary bees, bees that nest in the ground, and bees that nest in cavities and twigs. It is not clear why so many bee species have chosen to make their home in the monument, but they may be attracted to the diversity of the landscape, which offers a range of habitats and desert plants.

Most of the bees were found to dwell in geographically isolated locations, prompting the researchers to wonder how the administration’s proposed changes to Grand Staircase-Escalante will affect bee populations that live there. According to Emily Birnbaum of the Hill, the plan involves splitting the monument into three smaller ones, which could in turn open newly unprotected land to human development, like mining, road construction and natural gas extraction.

As part of a follow-up study published this month, also in PeerJ, a number of the researchers involved in the first report studied the distribution of bees across old and new boundaries. They found that most of the bees—87 percent of the 660 species—live in areas that will continue to lie within the monument once its boundaries are reduced. But “that leaves about 84 species no longer inhabiting protected land,” says Joseph Wilson, an evolutionary ecologist at Utah State University and lead author of the new study.

Some of these bees are unique “morphospecies,” or individuals that don’t match any known species, and others still have not been described. A number of newly excluded bee species also represent the northern or southern extent of their range in the region, which is important because “they can provide valuable information about how bee species might respond to climate change,” according to the study authors.

The researchers are also worried about possible threats to Grand Staircase-Escalante’s bees because, as pollinating insects, bees play a crucial role in their ecosystems. Indeed, the decline of honeybees across the globe, due largely to the use of bee-killing pesticides has sparked acute concerns about biodiversity loss and detrimental impacts on food production.

But for now, it is not known how the shrinking of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will impact the bees that live there. None of the excluded species seem to be currently threatened, and few are universally rare, occurring in other regions of the western United States. And while bees perform “a critical ecological service as pollinators,” the study authors write, “the role of these specific bees in maintaining functioning plant–pollinator networks has not been evaluated to any extent.”

Further study is needed, in other words, to fully assess the ramifications of the proclamation. It is not even clear if the proposed modifications will happen. Native American and conservation groups have filed lawsuits against the president, arguing that his plans to reduce the Grand Staircase-Escalante and another Utah monument, Bears Ears, are illegal and exceed the president’s authority.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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