The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to downgrade the status of the American burying beetle from endangered to threatened, but local scientists say climate change is putting the species even more at risk.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the status change would loosen restrictions and protections for the beetle.
On the endangered species list since 1989, the beetle once found in at least 35 states across the country is now found in nine states, largely in the Midwest. The only naturally occurring population on the East Coast is on Block Island in Rhode Island, but conservation agencies have reintroduced a population on Nantucket. At one point, Block Island and Oklahoma were the only places in the country where the beetles were found.
Even though climate change could wipe out portions of the population within the middle of this century, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the beetle’s current viability is higher than when it was added to the endangered species list. Only animals that have an immediate threat of extinction are considered endangered, according to the agency.
In its proposal, Fish and Wildlife wrote that the American burying beetle does not currently meet the definition of endangered because it is not presently in danger of extinction.
“The species is currently represented by several populations with moderate to high resiliency that are distributed in several portions of the historical range,” the proposal reads.
But local experts have reservations that the beetle is strong enough to be downgraded from its endangered status, citing struggles to survive without human help and looming challenges from climate change.
“I am skeptical that there is any evidence that (American burying beetle) populations have grown since it was first listed in 1989,” said Andrew McKenna-Foster, a scientist who has studied the beetles and worked on their conservation on Nantucket with the Maria Mitchell Association. “Since the listing, new western populations were found making it appear like the species was doing fine. But we know about the larger western populations only because we went looking for them and found them before they too disappeared, like the populations in most eastern states.”
The black-and-orange wine cork-sized beetles are known as nature’s recyclers because they bury animal carcasses to feed their young. They are also one of the rare co-parenting species of insect.
Their lifespan is only about a year, giving them few chances to reproduce and keep the species alive, McKenna-Foster said.
“If things go wrong for a bunch of (American burying beetles) in their one summer of existence, that means a population drop,” he said. “Climate change is putting this species even more at risk. Any of its few isolated populations could be wiped out by flooding or extreme temperature variations. There’s no coming back from that.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service did find that rising temperatures could affect the beetles, but said that there is little that the Endangered Species Act can do to protect against climate change.
McKenna-Foster credited the push to downgrade the species to the Oklahoma oil and gas industry, for which the beetle has been a burr in its saddle.
In 2015, a petition regarding the beetle was filed by the American Stewards of Liberty, Independent Petroleum Association of America, Texas Public Policy Foundation and Dr. Steven W. Carothers.
The group’s petition said the beetle is no longer “currently in danger of extinction across all or a significant portion of its contemporary range. Historic conditions are not relevant to current status determinations under the (Endangered Species Act).”
McKenna-Foster worried that reducing protections could lead to a drop in beetle numbers in Oklahoma, site of one of the healthiest populations in the country.
“Conservation of this species is unbelievably cheap and should continue uninterrupted,” he said. “Delisting it in support of the oil and gas industry, which has a finite lifetime, would be a massive disservice to future generations.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is soliciting comments on the proposal, which is available in the federal registry. The comment period is 60 days and the proposal would take a year to enact.
Even if the beetle is removed from the endangered list, things will be status quo in New England, said Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation at the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence. The zoo has bred thousands of beetles over the years and released and provisioned them on Nantucket.
“It’s not going to change anything that we do here at all,” he said. Most of the land that the beetles live on in Rhode Island and Nantucket is conservation land, so the proposal to ease restrictions would not apply, he said. “Here I don’t really think its going to change much at all.”
Perrotti shrugged off the idea that the beetles should be downgraded to threatened and worried that it would make future protection efforts harder.
“It’s obviously an endangered species,” he said. “Once you downlist something, to relist it is going to take an act of God. We’re going to lose this species if we’re not careful.”