By Roger Nomer
MIAMI, Okla. — Ottawa County Commissioners this week passed a resolution calling for removal of the American Burying Beetle from the list of federally protected endangered species.
It is part of an initiative promoted by the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, and commissioners in several other Oklahoma counties have endorsed it.
The action also comes on the heels of legislation introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to remove federal protection for the orange-and-black beetle.
"This is kind of a grassroots procedure here regionally. We want them to acknowledge that we have concerns here and we want to bump this up to the state level," said John Clarke, Ottawa County Commissioner. "We aren't against conservation efforts. We don’t want to hasten the demise of this species. We just want the environmental groups to look again at this region to understand that they aren't endangered here, or if they have at least recovered to a point that we don’t have to continue these studies at a cost to taxpayers."
Clarke says that since the beetle is protected, the county has to perform an evaluation before it can begin any construction project. These studies cost between $5,000 to $7,500 each, and that money is paid by taxpayers.
"There has to be an evaluation done on that specific species to see if they are in the proximity of our construction plans, and that goes for anything on the protected list," Clarke said. "The studies have to take place in the summer for this beetle since that is when they are active and that study is only good for one year. If construction doesn't occur within that time frame, then we have to start the whole process over. It’s so binding to anything we want to do. Every study we do costs money — money that is tight that we can use (for) new projects like bridges and roads, which is our primary focus as a commission."
In 1989, when the American Burying Beetle was given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, there were only two known populations of the beetle, one on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island and one that had been recently discovered in Oklahoma. At the time it was thought that the American Burying Beetle had experienced “one of the most disastrous declines of an insect’s range ever to be recorded,” according to federal records.
Since that listing, subsequent surveys for the American Burying Beetle have turned up additional populations in several Midwest states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Arkansas. However, according to Lesli Gray, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the beetle is still missing from 90 percent of its former range, which once extended from Florida to Canada, and from the Dakotas to Texas.
Many of those remaining populations in the west are “viable but precarious," Bob Merz, director of the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation, told the Globe this summer during beetle restoration efforts at Wah’KonTah Prairie in Southwest Missouri.
Asked about the commissioners' position, Gray said: "We don't have any comment on the resolutions themselves. Nor did the agency have any comment on the bill Inhofe introduced last year.
Gray said her office continues to work with state and federal officials and experts to try and gather more information about the population and distribution of the beetle, but she said there is no proposal to delist it at this time.
"West of the Mississippi, it looks like those populations appear to be doing okay," Gray said. "East of the Mississippi they are absent everywhere but Block Island and Nantucket."
The latter site, like Wah'KonTah, has been the focus of a long-term restoration effort. There also is a restoration effort underway in southeast Ohio.
Inhofe, who became chairman of the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee this session, had introduced a bill in the 113th Congress that would remove the American Burying Beetle from the federal list of endangered species. He said at the time he introduced his legislation that when the beetle was first listed in 1989, only a small population was known to exist, but since then it has been found in 45 of the state's 77 counties.
"The Endangered Species Act is designed to protect species that may go extinct, and the ABB is showing increasing resiliency," Inhofe said in a statement issued at the time. His bill had the support of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association and the state's oil and gas industry.
His spokesperson, Donelle Harder, said that while it remains an important issue for him, as chairman of the EPW committee, he is now more likely to focus on "reforming the Endangered Species Act as a whole."
"He's going to take a broader look," Harder said. More....