Government lifts protections for American burying beetle

Federal regulators lifted protections for the American burying beetle, reclassifying the first insect identified as an endangered species to one that is threatened.

The insect is described by as one of nature’s sanitation engineers and by others as a roadblock to transportation projects. The large, black beetle with orange-red markings once found across the eastern half of the United States has been protected since 1989.

Its protected status was conferred after a survey conducted four years earlier found them only in Oklahoma and Rhode Island. Its range has expanded across parts of seven or eight states since then, but researchers say its present range amounts to about 10% of its historic habitat, which shrank due to land use practices and other factors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined as part of a final rule announced this past week the beetle’s habitat could shrink again during the next 30 to 50 years as a result of climate change. Because the “existential risk” posed by climate change was not as great to beetle populations in the Northern Plains, the agency justified its de-listing decision on a statutory provision that accommodates assessments based on regional differences.

“Continued or expanded habitat protections would do little to avoid or minimize the primary risks that are related to projected increasing temperatures and other climate-related changes,” states the final rule signed by USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith. “Maintaining or re-establishing populations in southern portions of the historical range is not feasible for the future due to the effects of projected increases in temperatures due to climate changes.”

Skipwith, in a media release announcing the “downlisting” advocated by the energy and transportation sectors, described the move as a “partnership-driven approach to conservation.” The agency director cited states, tribes, U.S. Department of Defense, The Nature Conservancy, zoos, conservation bankers, industry stakeholders and others as partners.

Those who support the final rule, which was promulgated under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, say it provides regulatory certainty to landowners and regulated industries.

Dr. Stuart Woods, a biology professor at Connors State College who has researched the ABB and its habitat for 25 years, said he believes USFWS “jumped the gun.” Woods, who conducted only three surveys this year due to the pandemic, said he has found little evidence to support claims that the beetles’ populations have grown.

“We know more than we did when I started studying this 25 years ago, but I don’t think we know enough about this beetle to de-list it,” Woods said. “This is not a state-level decision, it is being made at the national level, and I feel like we are jumping the gun a little.”

Woods said there are many questions that remain unanswered.

The final rule prohibits incidental takes in the Southern Plains Region only on certain conservation land. There are exceptions to the prohibition for activities conducted in accordance with Service-approved conservation plans.

District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke said he is happy about the reclassification, but he does not know yet how it will affect county road and bridge projects. He said the beetle’s endangered species status has delayed projects and added to the cost of projects.

“It will be interesting to see how this effects all of these projects,” Doke said, noting mitigation typically included the purchase of mitigation credits after studies and delays. “It felt like a money grab more than anything — you buy the credits, and they let you build the project.”

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