What It Means: American Burying Beetle Status Change
by Transect Team, on Oct 27, 2020
This is the first post of our new series "What They Said - What It Means," where we unscramble the jargon around an environmental topic and discuss what it really means for project development and for you.
In this post, we dive into the reasons behind the downlisting of the American burying beetle and the implications of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 4(d) rule on developments in the central U.S.
What They Said
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), reclassify (downlist) the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) from endangered to threatened on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife…We also finalize a rule under the authority of section 4(d) of the Act that provides measures that are necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the American burying beetle.
The USFWS published the downlisting on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of the endangered species, the American burying beetle, to a threatened species, effective November 16, 2020. The American burying beetle is the largest carrion beetle in North America that once inhabited 35 states and three Canadian provinces. The listed species is now largely limited to 2 distinct ranges in the U.S., the Southern Plains region and Northern Plains region. The Southern Plains region comprises contiguous parts of TX OK, KS, AR; the Northern Plains region is parts of South Dakota and Nebraska (see Figure 1). If you’ve tried to develop a project in either of these regions since the American burying beetle was originally listed as an endangered species in 1989, then you are likely no stranger to this distinct orange and black beetle.
What It Means
- American burying beetle is being downgraded from endangered to threatened because threats to the species survival have been reduced
- However, in order to ensure species survival, USFWS is using a 4(d) rule to focus conservation efforts on certain distinct geographic regions
- As such, many projects, especially those in OK, AR, and KS, that were previously subject to onerous survey and permitting timelines are no longer subject to those requirements.
*Too long/didn’t read
The threats to American burying beetle have been reduced
The downlisting of this endangered species to threatened comes from years of documentation and research on its habitat, population, and viability. It is thought that the primary decline in the species population was due to the amount of, and access to, appropriate carrion (carrion being the decaying flesh of dead animals) for the beetle’s food and breeding. Being the largest beetle of its type, it requires larger carrion than others to feed and reproduce on. Continued threats to this endangered species are mostly tied to habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation from farming and ranching practices that lead to changes in the composition and density of wildlife (its carrion and an increase in invasive species. In the Northern range, land use changes to cropland and from wind energy development are the primary concerns, while grazing, silviculture, and oil and gas development continue to stress the protected species in the southern range.
Perhaps the largest overall threat to the population is the changing climate we are experiencing. The species has a low tolerance for warmer temperatures, demonstrated by the Northern Region having larger populations and diversity of the beetle. Proper soil conditions with respect to temperature, texture and moisture are critical for the American burying beetle; it requires moist, sandy loam soils with organic matter. The soils must be loose enough to facilitate its burying of carcasses and cool enough to prevent rapid decay of the carrion. However, the warmer temperatures we are experiencing in the summer months are speeding up the decomposition rate of the carrion and increasing the beetle’s competition for suitable carrion with flies and ants. Coupled with the changes in precipitation and extended periods of drought, this is stressing and even killing the beetle, which is supported by it not having been recorded in Texas, the southern end of the southern range, since 2008.
The 4(d) rule focuses conservation efforts in certain geographic regions
A 4(d) rule allows the agency to address specific threats and conservation needs for a threatened species. Since the species largest risks of extinction within the foreseeable future are due to changes in land use and the effects of climate change, the 4(d) rule promotes conservation and encourages landscape management with an emphasis in the northern region where the species long-term success is most likely.
The 4(d) rule for the American burying beetle prohibits all intentional take of the protected species, meaning one cannot willfully or knowingly “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect the species.
Southern Plains (OK, AR, and KS)
In the Southern Plains, incidental take (i.e. unintentional take) is only prohibited by the 4(d) rule in three specific conservation areas:
- Fort Chaffee, just southeast of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
- McAlester Army Ammunition Plant near Savanna in central-southeastern Oklahoma; and,
- Camp Gruber/Cherokee Wildlife Management Area southeast of Tulsa, just east of the Arkansas River near Braggs, Oklahoma.
This decision can be attributed to the fact that effects from climate change threaten the overall suitability of this region for the species in the long-term and that impacts from habitat loss are estimated to occur on a very small percentage of lands in the region. Therefore, as the area slowly becomes too warm and increasingly unsuitable for the species, the activities that disturb the species suitable habitat are not likely to materially affect its survival and unintentional take of the species will not endanger the species continued survival.
What does this mean for development projects in the region?
- Surveys for the species during the narrow summer window are no longer a limiting factor for project schedules.
- Consultation with the USFWS is no longer required for development on private lands without areas of federal jurisdiction or federal funding, which previously could take up to 36 months to get necessary permits.
- Consultation with the USFWS when there is a federal nexus can now remain ‘informal’ and is likely to only take 30 days instead of upwards of three to six months.
Northern Plains (NE and SD) and everywhere else
Development projects outside of the Southern Plains Region are still subject to many of the same restrictions as they were before the 4(d) rule. Specifically, incidental take is prohibited in areas of suitable habitat resulting from physical and chemical soil disturbance; this includes grading, excavating, filling, topsoil stripping, ground/soil sterilizers and pesticides that made the habitat not suitable. Incidental take is also prohibited if it results from changing the land use of suitable habitat such as converting natural areas or pasture lands to croplands or urban sprawl. Notably, incidental take due to grazing or managing livestock is not prohibited therefore the primary livelihood of ranching in the region is unaffected. Therefore, private development projects that affect suitable habitat for the beetle are still largely subject to seasonal surveys, avoidance and minimization measures, agency consultations, and possibly mitigation for unavoidable impacts.
Overall, it’s good news for the species and industry
The downlisting of the previously endangered species, American burying beetle, demonstrates that the threats to this species have been reduced to the point that it is not currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, but that it is likely to become so within the foreseeable future without continued protections. However, the species viability no longer warrants the broad range conservative protection measures previously afforded to it. The knowledge gained throughout its formal listing as an endangered species has allowed the agency responsible for its protection to issue reasonable measures for its continued conservation; which is good news for the species and the industries that may affect its suitable habitat.
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