Beetle's protected status to be downlisted
After three decades on the endangered species list, the American burying beetle is thriving, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.
The government agency on Wednesday filed a proposal to downlist the insect to "threatened" from "endangered" in a move expected to save time and millions of dollars for road construction, pipelines and other projects throughout eastern Oklahoma.
"The status assessment shows us we have more beetles over a bigger area, and the additional survey effort found additional populations or expanded existing populations," said Kevin Stubbs, a biologist for the Oklahoma Ecological Services Field Office. "That's really what led to the proposed rule change for downlisting to threatened."
Oil and natural gas industry leaders praised the proposal.
"Today’s proposal to downlist the American burying beetle provides significant regulatory relief to Oklahoma job creators and is a step in the right direction for appropriate conservation of our native species and economic growth for the region, Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association — Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement.
"We applaud the federal government’s action, as it’s a reflection of the continued dedication of Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas operators to protecting species and local environments while bringing new economic opportunities to the state."
Environmental groups, however, opposed Wednesday's actions.
“The science shows the American burying beetle is even more endangered now, yet the Trump administration is severely reducing its habitat protections,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “David Bernhardt and his crew are only downlisting these unique beetles to please their oil and gas industry benefactors.”
The American burying beetle is a scavenger insect that feeds on dead birds and other small animals and generally lives just below ground. Because the endangered insect is found throughout much of eastern Oklahoma, construction crews since 1989 have had to account for the beetle before beginning their projects.
Until 2014, companies had to hire biologists to find, trap and relocate beetles before beginning their work. Beginning in 2014, companies in many cases have been able to meet federal regulations by paying to support established American burying beetle habitats throughout the region.
If the beetle's new status is approved, such actions will no longer be necessary.
"For the Oklahoma area, essentially the rule that would go with the downlisting would exempt almost all activities," Stubbs said. "Federal agencies are still required to consult with us on their projects, but we would streamline their consultation process, as well."
The beetle is believed to have a historic range covering 35 states and three Canadian provinces, but when it joined the endangered species list in 1989, it was known in only two locations — eastern Oklahoma and parts of Rhode Island.
Conservation and repopulation efforts have succeeded in expanding the species' numbers and territory, said Jonna Polk, a field supervisor with the Oklahoma Ecological Services Field Office. Surveys also have found the insect in other parts of the country.
The establishment and development of the beetle habitat and reserves helped ensure the species' survival and allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to recommended downgrading the insect's status, Stubbs said.
"We looked at how much land that had beetles was protected," he said. "That gave us more confidence in downlisting the species."
The preserve operators also helped the effort by providing research about the beetles and their populations throughout the area.
"Not only have those partners provided that good, sound habitat for the American burying beetle in areas where it already existed and managed those areas for their protection, they also have provided extremely valuable survey data to gain in our knowledge of what the true range is," Polk said. "They've been absolutely invaluable. We don't have the resources to go out and provide that data typically. It's wonderful to work with our partners. They've been absolutely critical to get us to the point where we can propose this type of rule."
The conservation banks were established and funded largely through mitigation payments from pipeline, road and other construction projects throughout the area.
"They are protected in perpetuity," Stubbs said. "They have funding set aside to continue managing those lands. The management likely will continue very similarly to what they have been doing. I don't see any changes or threat to those."
Wednesday's recommendation followed a regularly scheduled review and a request by the American Petroleum Institute and other organizations to delist the beetle.
While the agency proposed the status change on Wednesday, it will take at least 13 months before the beetle's status will be adjusted. For the next 60 days, the service will hold a public comment period where members of the public are encouraged to voice their views on the plan and provide data to back up their positions. The service then will take several months to evaluate the comments and research.
The agency must wait at least one year before a final order can be written, and the status will change only 30 days after the final order is published.