Imperiled beetle loses some protections

Photo courtesy of Roger Williams Park ZooThe American burying beetle is known to exist in nine states, including Massachusetts.

BOSTON — Wildlife officials say they have no plans to remove state protections for a beetle threatened by climate change following a controversial decision by the Trump administration to strip the bug of its endangered status.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week downlisted the American burying beetle under the Endangered Species Act, citing ongoing conservation efforts in Massachusetts and eight other states as a sign the species is recovering. The beetle moves from “endangered” to “threatened” status, which loosens some of the environmental regulations around the species.

But wildlife experts say the decision was made at the behest of the petroleum industry, which has lobbied for years to remove federal protections. In states such as Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas, oil and gas industry officials have complained that production was constrained by the beetle’s protected status.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the change a “gift to the oil and gas industry.”

“It green-lights destruction of the beetle’s habitat and the emission of even more of the pollution that’s fueling the climate emergency threatening the beetle and people,” he said.

A press release from the Fish and Wildlife Service announcing the changes included comments from oil and gas industry officials praising the move. Trump administration officials boasted that “no administration in history has recovered more imperiled species.”

“The downlisting of the American burying beetle clearly illustrates the value of our partnership-driven approach to conservation,” said Aurelia Skipwith, the agency’s director, in a statement. “By working with state agencies across the country, private landowners, zoos, tribes, the Department of Defense and other partners, we have helped preserve this unique and interesting species.”

The changes, at least for now, won’t affect the bug’s status in Massachusetts.

The burying beetle is still listed as “endangered” under the state’s Endangered Species Act. A spokesperson for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said it is “unlikely its listing status will change.”

The agency reviews the status of protected species every five years, and any formal review of the beetle’s status will not be conducted until 2022.

The inch-long, black-and-orange beetles are referred to as “nature’s undertakers” because they bury dead mice and other animal carcasses to feed their larvae. It’s lifespan lasts about a year, and it’s one of few species in which male and females both look after their offspring.

The bug, which has been on the federal endangered species list since 1989, was once widespread across the country. Experts say habitat loss, climate change and other factors have reduced its dwindling population to only nine states.

Massachusetts has a known colony of American burying beetles on Nantucket. There’s another on Block Island. Both are monitored by wildlife conservationists.

Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, said the beetle’s existence is still precarious, even with more than two decades of efforts to protect it locally. He was among a group of scientists who fought unsuccessfully to prevent the downlisting.

“It’s truly an endangered species and the downlisting was totally unwarranted,” he said. “It was a political move, unfortunately.”

Biodiversity groups, meanwhile, are gearing up for a legal challenge to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.

“We’re going to challenge it because it just doesn’t make sense,” Greenwald said. “We can’t allow the oil and gas industry to drive this beetle to extinction.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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