Tucked between missile defense and nuclear weapons monitoring in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, is a small beetle that doesn’t bite, or damage property. And yet the U.S. government wants to wipe it out.
What role does the American burying beetle play in the defense of our nation? None in military terms. But U.S. Representative Jim Bridenstine, Republican of Oklahoma, is using the defense bill as a vehicle to eliminate endangered species protection for the American burying beetle, claiming it interferes with military preparedness.
In fact, it’s not the military, but business that objects to the beetle’s protection. Because of its endangered status, Oklahoma developers and the oil industry are forced to move projects or pay to create new beetle habitat. Fortunately for the beetle, that legislative backdoor attempt failed.
The American burying beetle has been called nature’s undertaker. These inch-and-a-half long, handsome, nocturnal insects locate dead animals and, working in male-female pairs, move and bury carcasses even the size of a chipmunk as food for their young. The quick, nighttime internment of carcasses prevents fly breeding, reducing annoyance for humans and livestock.
The quick, nighttime internment of carcasses prevents fly breeding, reducing annoyance for humans and livestock.
Both male and female beetles also participate in parenting. In preparing the carcass for their young, beetle parents smear it with saliva, which contains an antimicrobial substance. Scientists at Oklahoma State University are investigating medical and food preservative uses of the substance.
In the 1980s, entomologists noticed that American burying beetles had gone missing. A survey revealed that the beetle, once found in 32 eastern states and three Canadian provinces, was only known on an island near Rhode Island and a in single county in Oklahoma. The American burying beetle was placed on the endangered species list in 1989.
Since then, additional populations were found in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Arkansas—still a miniscule fraction of its former range. Important factors leading to the beetle’s decline include loss of habitat, and increased nighttime artificial light, which disrupts beetle navigation. American burying beetle expert, assistant professor Wyatt Hoback at Oklahoma State University, says that, “like an elephant or a lion it needs a lot of space. Each beetle requires one hundred acres to survive.”
The elimination of large predators like wolves increased smaller predators like raccoons and opossums that compete with the beetle for carcasses. The extinction of passenger pigeons, and a decrease in larger rodents like voles, also contributed to beetle decline.
Oklahoma politicians have been targeting the American burying beetle for years. Congressman Frank Lucas introduced an amendment to the 2016 and Bridenstine to the 2017 Defense Authorization.
The state’s Republican Senator James Inhofe sponsored the American Burying Beetle Relief Act in 2014 to delist the beetle. Inhofe, chair of the House’s Environment and Public Works committee, has pressured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the beetle since 2003.
Senator James Lankford, Oklahoma’s other Republican Senator, requested an audit of the conservation of the American burying beetle, which criticized the Fish and Wildlife Service’s financial controls.
Why is so much political muscle applied to the struggling beetle? Just follow the money. Inhofe received more than $285,000, Lucas nearly $100,000, and Bridenstine $62,000 in 2014, and Lankford received more than $350,000 last year from the oil industry, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Why is so much political muscle applied to the struggling beetle? Just follow the money.
Last year, the American Stewards of Liberty, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, joined to petition the USFWS directly to delist the beetle. While the petition, authored by industry consultant Steve Carothers, correctly reflects the increase in beetle knowledge since 1989, it is more political than scientific, relying on obfuscation and legalisms to criticize the original endangered classification.
Hoback says though “some of the points in the petition are valid, it contains bad information and bad logic.” Other parts of the petition are, according to Hoback, “scientifically preposterous,” particularly the explanations for the reduction in the beetle’s range.
But the political pressure generated by the petition was enough to spur a year-long Fish and Wildlife Service review of the American burying beetle. It is expected to release its findings soon.
Hoback believes “the problems the beetle faces will accelerate without protection.” The beetle is no longer found in Kansas or Texas. Attempts to reintroduce the American burying beetle in Ohio, Missouri, and Massachusetts have failed or had limited success. Climate change will also devastate beetle populations.
Attempts to reintroduce the American burying beetle in Ohio, Missouri, and Massachusetts have failed or had limited success. Climate change will also devastate beetle populations.
The beetle’s endangered listing provides funds to monitor numbers and set aside habitat. Hoback’s apt comparison to lions and elephants illustrates the issues for the beetle. Like lions, it is a challenge to meet the beetle’s habitat needs. But, unlike lions it doesn’t grace the cover of wildlife magazines.
The effort to delist the American burying beetle tests our commitment to endangered species and the endangered species act itself. How do we value this species and its ecosystem contributions?
The 1973 Endangered Species Act mentions the aesthetic, ecological, educational, and scientific benefit of endangered species to “the Nation and its people.” Let’s hope it’s the benefit to the people that decides the fate of this iconic beetle, rather than the narrow interests of industry and the politicians they support.
Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wildlife Society have actively opposed the delisting efforts in Congress. Their action will be important should the Forest Service succumb to pressure and rule against the American burying beetle later this year.
Hainze is a writer and educator living in Seattle, and a Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability affiliate at Seattle University. The American burying beetle appears in his upcoming book on appreciating smaller creatures in the Anthropocene.