Osage County Commissioners endorse ‘bug out’ stance on endangered beetle

Mike ErwinJournal-Capital
Osage County Commissioners endorse ‘bug out’ stance on endangered beetle

A resolution calling for removal from the endangered-species list of a pesky little insect known as the American burying beetle was endorsed last week by the Osage County Commission.

“Most people think this is a joke, but it’s stopped more bridge and road projects than anything else I know of,” District One Commissioner Bob Jackson said of the beetle issue during a Monday, Jan. 26, board meeting.

Commission chairman Scott Hilton referred to discussions he’d had about the insect-conservation efforts disrupting construction work by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

“ODOT officials said companies have beetle farms where you can buy in for the estimated number (of beetles) that might be disturbed by your project,” the Skiatook commissioner said.

Hilton’s next comments proceeded down a road which endangered the county panel’s seriousness in considering the burying beetle’s plight.

“There’s also something called bait-away that involves throwing dead chickens out in a field,” the commission chair explained. “The beetles will migrate toward these dead chickens and that gets them away from your project.”

After concluding his review of the beetle problem, Hilton called for action on a pending resolution.

“A push is on now to take the American burying beetle off the endangered species list,” said Hilton. “The fact that they can bring a building project to a dead stop is outrageous.”

The three-member county board then voted unanimously to endorse a resolution calling for the removal of conservationist sanctions on the American variety of burying beetle (scientific name Nicrophorus americanus) which was designated as a threatened species in 1989 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Although it remains listed as “critically endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this beetle species actually has shown dramatic recovery, with population growth that has far exceeded initial goals, the resolution states. The document further claims that the beetle’s status on the endangered species list has been shown to cause “unnecessary regulation, mitigation and financial cost” at the burden of the taxpayer.

Considered the largest member of the beetle guild, American burying beetles belong to the order Coleoptera and the family Silphidae. They are also called giant carion beetles due to specialized breeding requirements for vertebrate carcasses, which are used to nourish their young.

Formerly known to exist in 35 U.S. states, this type of burying beetle are now only being found in sections of eastern Oklahoma/western Arkansas, an area of Nebraska/South Dakota and on Rhode Island’s Block Island. (Biologists also have released laboratory-raised specimens on Nantucket and Penikese islands in Massachussetts.)

Researchers have not fully established why this insect has disappeared from so many areas. Pesticides may have contributed to the demise of the burying beetle, but a 1988 study by Boston University biologists found its populations were already declining rapidly when chemical agents like DDT came into widespread use. While it was determined that Block Island had never been sprayed with DDT or any other pesticide of that spectrum, it is noteworthy that some of the earliest experimental sprayings with DDT were done in Osage County.

The endangered beetles are protected by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the same 1969 U.S. law that was recently invoked in a federal lawsuit over Osage County oil and gas drilling. No new drilling permits have been issued in the county since the suit was filed last August, as officials are awaiting completion of an updated Environmental Assessment report for the county.

NEPA regulations relevant to the threatened insect species also have been raised with the Bureau of Land Management in regard to the wild horse adoption programs which are operating in the county.