Trump Seeks to Downgrade Protection for Endangered Beetle

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is seeking to downgrade Endangered Species Act protections for a one-inch beetle that has confounded oil pipelines and drilling in Oklahoma and Nebraska.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to lower the American burying beetle’s classification from “endangered” to “threatened” follows a review of the insect’s status and years of lobbying by the oil industry to strip its protections. The agency is also proposing a narrower suite of protections it says are tailored “to only those the beetle needs for recovery.”

Trump Seeks to Downgrade Protection for Endangered Beetle

Based on a “thorough review of the best available information,” the American burying beetle is “not currently at risk of extinction,” and therefore does not warrant the endangered species classification, said Jonna Polk, an Oklahoma field supervisor for the agency.

Known as nature’s undertakers, the shiny black-and-orange burying beetles are short-lived scavengers that come out at night to sniff out dead field mice, pigeons and other small animals. They uniquely co-parent their offspring by burying the animal carcasses in underground nests -- after first stripping the animals of feathers and fur and then shaping the creatures into balls. The beetles then excavate the ground under the animals, lay eggs next to that carrion and use that meat to nourish their broods -- even forgoing mating to prioritize the needs of their young.

The beetle’s range once spread across at least 35 states but had dwindled to just two locations -- Oklahoma and Block Island near Rhode Island -- by 1989, when it was classified as endangered. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says nine states are home to the beetle: Arkansas, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Texas.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Trump administration is disregarding scientific information showing the burying beetle “is even more endangered now,” and Interior Department leaders “are only down-listing these unique beetles to please their oil and gas industry benefactors.”

The proposal was cheered by oil industry interests that have pushed the government to strip the beetle’s Endangered Species Act protections. Dan Naatz, senior vice president at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, called the move “welcome news to those that have been in limbo” waiting for a decision.

“Since 1989, the beetle’s listing has been met with criticism for failing to provide the science-based evidence that ESA listings warrant,” Naatz said. “The beetle’s listing was rooted in faulty assumptions about the species’ range, distribution and abundance.”

Critics say the beetle’s endangered status has forced developers to employ mitigation efforts that boost project costs. The insect’s presence among Oklahoma oil fields has prompted project delays and restrictions, spurring at least $6.5 million in protection efforts, according to the IPAA.

For years, companies were required to bait and trap beetles before building pipelines, constructing roads or launching drilling in the insect’s path. For instance, in its bid to build the Keystone XL pipeline across Nebraska, TransCanada Corp. previously committed to trapping and relocating the beetles, a plan reliant on using pungent rat carcasses to lure them out.

Developers now have other options for blunting the impacts of their projects, such as by buying offsetting credits from conservation banks protecting several thousand acres in Oklahoma.

The oil industry has pressured the federal government to ease protections for the burying beetle, arguing the initial endangered classification was flawed and the insect’s range has dramatically expanded. The IPAA and other groups filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in September 2017, arguing the agency had dragged its feet in considering a petition to completely delist the beetle.

Kinder Morgan Inc. executives also previously sought to talk to former Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt about the beetle, according to correspondence released by the agency in 2018.

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