American Burying Beetle could get downgraded conservation status

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
05/16/2019 12:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
On May 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to downgrade the American Burying Beetle’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.” The beetle buries carcasses next to its eggs so the larva can feed when they hatch. The activity enhances soil quality. ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAHLEQUAH – To many, it may seem like just a bug, but the American Burying Beetle has occasionally made headlines in the arena of wildlife conservation since it was awarded the protections of the Endangered Species Act 30 years ago.

It re-entered conservation consciousness on May 1, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to downgrade the beetle’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.”

The beetle also received some press in August 2018, when Principal Chief Bill John Baker signed an executive order designating a portion of the tribe’s 800-acre park on Sallisaw Creek in Sequoyah County as an American Burying Beetle conservation area for 10 years. The CN worked with the FWS to establish the endangered species program because there had never before been a conservation and mitigation model involving an American Indian tribe.

“I am glad that the American Burying Beetle appears to be more plentiful today that it was when it was first listed on the Endangered Species list in 1989,” CN Natural Resources Secretary Sara Hill, said. “The Cherokee Nation will continue to monitor the American Burying Beetle population, and our efforts to preserve habitat for all species of wildlife native to this area continues regardless of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to down list this species.”

A burying beetle was found at the planned site of Cherokee Casino Tahlequah, requiring the CN to get federally permitted to relocate the beetle and find a conservation bank before putting the land in federal trust. Otherwise, the tribe would have had to leave the beetle alone. The beetle also presented itself during preparation for a $7 million tribal road project.

With its conservation area, the CN has a ready habitat should the beetle be encountered again on any projects during the next 10 years. But relocation can get expensive. An oil company reportedly coughed up $6 million in 2012 to relocate six American Burying Beetles.

Much of this becomes academic if the FWS proposal is accepted. It includes a 4(d) rule, typically used to spur conservation efforts, but it also reduces regulatory regimens for activities that are considered of minor impact. The service consulted researchers, field offices, biologists and the tribes when it started a re-evaluation of the beetle’s status in 2015.

“This information indicates that the American Burying Beetle populations are not currently at risk of extinction,” said Jonna Polk, FWS field supervisor. “They are not, we feel, endangered, but future threats are projected to cause declines in American burying beetle populations.”

FWS officials said the biggest of the “future threats” is climate change.

“The southern portions of the range would have temperatures that we think would exceed their tolerances within about a 10- to 30-year window of time,” said Kevin Stubbs, FWS biologist. “There really isn’t anything we can do ESA protection-wise to address the climate risk. We have left protections of land use-related risks in place for the northern population…. There is little we can do to deal with climate change.”

Stubbs said Oklahoma is home to “two very resilient populations,” but added that hard figures were not available.

“There are no numbers for most of those areas,” he said. “We looked at percentages of positive versus negative surveys and assumed population densities for those.”

The proposal came under heavy shelling by environmental and biodiversity groups, who called it a giveaway to the oil and gas industry. They were quick to blame the Trump administration and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the hydrocarbon sector who lost his “acting” capacity in April when he was permanently appointed to the post.

“The science shows the American Burying beetle is even more endangered now, yet the Trump administration is severely reducing its habitat protections,” Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity endangered species director, said. “David Bernhardt and his crew are only downlisting these unique beetles to please their oil and gas industry benefactors.”


Critics of the FWS proposal point to the range of the beetle, which was once native to 35 states, but is now in only nine. Others site the American Burying Beetle as another example of the effectiveness of the ESA, noting that the beetle was only present in Oklahoma and Rhode Island when first listed.

A public comment period – which ends July 2 – is preceding the final decision, which may not be made until mid-2020. According to the ESA, an endangered species is at risk of extinction, and a threatened species is at risk of becoming endangered in the near future.

Information on public comment concerning the American Burying Beetle is at www.fws.gov/southwest/es/oklahoma/.
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