Minnesota’s Mixed Bag Session for Pollinators

Aside from a very notable bright spot, legislators mainly shied away from doing even the easy and obvious things to protect pollinators.
The Minnesota State Capitol

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

—John F. Kennedy

While this quote has little to do with how pollinators fared in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, it looked at one point like state legislators were poised to shoot the moon. Earlier in the year, there were no fewer than a dozen pro-pollinator bills or policies floating around the state capitol.

So how’d it all shake out? Aside from a very notable bright spot, legislators mainly shied away from doing even the easy and obvious things to protect pollinators, provided there was even the faintest hint that they would offend Big Chemical companies.

First, the good news: yesterday, Governor Tim Walz signed a law that provides nearly a million dollars to the “Lawns to Legumes” program—the brainchild of perennial pollinator champion, Representative Rick Hansen. In a nutshell, the program pays homeowners up to 75% of the costs of converting their turf lawns to native pollinator-friendly habitat (and up to 90% in areas with “high potential” for rusty patched bumble bee habitat). While the details of implementation are being hashed out, the program combats one of the major threats to bees and other pollinators—habitat loss—and could serve as a national model for turning our ever-expanding urban and suburban areas into pollinator paradises. (For more on what you can do with your lawn, see here.)

Smaller wins include continued funding for a statewide survey of wild bees and the designation of the endangered rusty patched bumble bee as the official state bee—although neither provide additional and desperately needed protections for Minnesota’s bees. (For more on NRDC’s ongoing work to protect the rusty patched bumble bee, see here.) 

A pollinator friendly lawn in Minneapolis
Credit: Photo by Courtney Celley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Losses, on the other hand, were stinging. For example, one bill sought to keep highly bee-toxic neonicotinoid insecticides or “neonics” out of the state’s 1.3 million acre Wildlife Management Area system—codifying an existing state agency policy to ensure the system remains a clean and safe place for Minnesota’s pollinators. Yet, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for the measure—with the House voting for a permanent ban, and all sixty-seven senators voting for a five-year ban—the provision was stripped out of the state “omnibus” environmental bill at the eleventh hour in closed-door conference committee negotiations. While the committee gave no explanation for scrapping a policy supported by both houses, it’s a safe bet that chemical industry lobbyists made a few last-minute visits to key legislators.

Other casualties include a provision that would have freed Minnesota’s largest cities from state control over local pesticide regulation, enabling them to work with the state Department of Agriculture to enact sensible local laws to protect pollinations. Even a pilot program providing financial assistance to farmers voluntarily switching away from using corn and soybean seeds treated with neonics—a practice that heavily pollutes the environment, cost farmers money, and simply doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases—failed to advance.

On the whole, given the early momentum of many meaningful pollinator protections that sputtered out before the finish line, it’s hard not to characterize the session as a disappointment for Minnesota’s bees, birds, and other pollinating wildlife. More needs to be done. Indeed, despite Minnesota’s reputation as a national leader in pollinator protection, the state recently recorded its second-highest annual loss of honey bee colonies in the last decade—a staggering 53.6%.

Now here’s where I could say that, to protect pollinators, Minnesota’s legislators must choose to do the hard things. But in reality, there are any number of easy, commonsense measures that would benefit Minnesota’s farmers, bees, and everyday citizens—although some might upset a few deep-pocketed, out-of-state chemical companies.

While Minnesota now has the only divided state legislature in the country, for the past several years, one message has been clear—Republican or Democrat, the public wants to protect pollinators. The sheer amount of pro-pollinator bills introduced this session shows that legislators have heard that message. Let’s just hope that, next session, they find the resolve to do more about it.