Enviros Champion Beetle Bumped Off Endangered List by Big Oil

Thirty years of protection brought the American burying beetle back from the brink of extinction, but its proponents say climate change has exacerbated its existential threat.

(Photo by the U.S. Forest Service via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity brought a federal complaint Thursday to restore the American burying beetle’s place on the Endangered Species List six months after the Trump administration reduced its classification to threatened. 

The downlisting came after the American Stewards of Liberty and Independent Petroleum Association of America petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 to do so, claiming that the beetle’s endangered status was rooted in faulty assumptions about the species’ prevalence.  

“The Service did not have enough scientific evidence to justify adding the ABB to the Endangered Species List in 1989, and that decision has cost landowners and local governments millions,” Margaret Byfield, executive director of American Stewards of Liberty, said when the petition was filed. 

Regulatory hurdles regarding the beetle have inconvenienced the oil and gas industry, as they interfere with land development, transportation and pipeline operations. 

The groups said that the designation was based on inadequate data: In 1989, when the beetle was classified as endangered, scientists had found only two remaining American burying beetle populations — but as the beetle was further studied, they continued to find more.  

In Thursday’s complaint, however, the Center for Biological Diversity says the industry drew the wrong conclusion.

“It isn’t because the populations are expanding, it’s that there are more populations than they thought,” said Kristine Akland, and attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the threats remain the same and are increasing.”

Indeed, as conservation groups tell it, the species is actually at greater risk of extinction due to climate change and habitat destruction. The beetle, which provides important nutrient cycling in the ecosystem, has been eliminated from more than 90% of its historic range. Reports from Fish and Wildlife predict that the beetle will disappear from an additional 59% of its current range within the next 20 to 40 years. 

Agency standards use the term endangered to designate a species that will become extinct in the foreseeable future, while a threatened designation means the species will become endangered in the foreseeable future. 

In 2015, the same year that the oil industry petitioned for delisting, Fish and Wildlife spoke to the ongoing threats against the beetle when it determined that the species was still endangered. Five years later, the agency opted to downlist rather than delist, as the industry had requested.

“We have determined that the American burying beetle is no longer in danger of extinction and, therefore, does not meet the definition of an endangered species,” the agency wrote. “But is still affected by current and ongoing threats to the extent that the species meets the definition of a threatened species under the Act.”

Michael Amaral, a wildlife biologist and expert on American burying beetles, said the agency’s decision was inconsistent with scientific analyses and was based on misleading findings. Other American burying beetle experts echoed these concerns. 

With their new designation, the beetle has fewer protections than before, as the Trump administration rolled back protections for threatened species in 2019.  

“A threatened designation allows the oil and gas industry to develop on beetle habitats in the southern plains without any repercussions,” Akland said. 

Mallori Miller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an email that she is confident that the downlisting will be upheld. 

Meanwhile, Akland said she is hopeful that the Biden administration will increase protections for endangered species and take a second look at the American Burying Beetle. 

“We are very hopeful that it will be a different landscape,” Akland said. 

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