with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration said it plans to weaken protections for a beetle facing a threat of extinction from climate change, a move welcomed by oil and natural gas drillers lobbying for the change. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week a proposal to change the status of the American burying beetle from “endangered” to merely “threatened,” which would make it easier for oil and gas producers who must work around the insect when drilling and laying pipeline.

With that change in status, which has yet to be finalized, energy producers and other businesses in oil-rich Oklahoma would no longer need to seek out federal permits to operate in the insect’s habitat.

Ranchers there and in other states to the north, including Nebraska and South Dakota, would also be exempt from what many of them see as those cumbersome procedures.

Jeff Eshelman, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which initially asked the federal government to review its endangered declaration for the beetle, said the “status change is welcome news.”

But environmental advocates lashed out at the decision to lift the 30-year-old protections on the species. They say it's ironic since the beetle is imperiled by climate change, but removing protections will allow easier oil and gas drilling will only contribute to rising temperatures.

And the decision came just before a United Nations panel issued a major report warning that the world is on the brink of losing up to one million plant and animal species to extinction.

In explaining its decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it is beyond its power to save the species in the southern part of its range — which includes much of eastern Oklahoma along with parts of Arkansas, Kansas and Texas — from the biggest threat it faces there: climate change.

Biologists for the agency concluded that higher temperatures and lower soil moisture there over the next three decades will make much of the area too inhospitable for the insect.

“Even with the most aggressive reductions in climate change models,” said Kevin Stubbs, an Oklahoma-based biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, “it wasn't going to change the fact that the temperatures down here were going to rise above levels we think would support the beetle.”

That reasoning didn't cut it for environmentalists. “They’re basically throwing their hands up,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s totally irrational. It’s crazy.”

The agency said it was following the letter of the law by listing the beetle as "threatened" rather than "endangered." "It fits that definition of not currently endangered, or at risk of extinction, but is within the foreseeable future," Stubbs said.

Preparing for that future, the Trump administration's plan calls for 213,000 acres of conservation area to be set aside for the beetle's southern population so it can later be reintroduced to the north once temperatures warm.

A nocturnal black-and-orange beetle with the scientific name Nicrophorus americanus, the American burying beetle performs the mortician-like ritual of entombing small dead mammals and birds with its own eggs inside. After hatching, the larvae feed on the interred carcass until mature.

Years of farming and other land development dwindled the beetle’s range down from 35 states to just a few corners of Oklahoma and Rhode Island by the time it was originally placed on the endangered species list in 1989.But since then the beetle has mounted a “comeback,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, spreading to nine other states due to the reintroduction of burying beetle bred in captivity.

However, Brett Ratcliffe, a beetle researcher at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, disagreed that the insect has significantly recovered over the past three decades, saying it only seems more prevalent because more field tests have been conducted to find it. “Overall, the population is not robust enough” to justify delisting the beetle, Ratcliffe said. “Especially because we have climate change entering into this.”

Still, in 2015, a coalition of industry groups, including the IPAA, petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the beetle from the endangered-species list. The petroleum lobby group had long been critical of the original decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the beetle as endangered, which they say was not based in proper science.

It was during President Trump’s administration that IPAA’s lobbying effort went into high gear, according to documents released to the watchdog groups Western Values Project and Documented under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an August 2017 email to Vincent DeVito, a political appointee at the Wildlife Service’s parent agency, the Interior Department, Sam McDonald, IPAA’s director of government relations, emphasized how the “listing has cost $6.5 million in protection efforts over the last 20 years” in Oklahoma while causing “delays of essential road and bridge projects” in the state. The pair followed up with a meeting that month.

The IPAA echoed that sentiment when reached for comment about the Trump administration’s decision to “downlist” the beetle. IPAA spokesman Eshelman said that “economic threats to the communities affected by the listing [have] cost private landowners, businesses, and local governments millions and American jobs.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decisions surrounding the beetle have faced controversy before.

In 2017, two outside beetle researchers, Wyatt Hoback and Douglas Leasure, who were working with the agency on its assessment of the species, quit after they said federal wildlife officials pressured them to work on a rushed timeline at odds with what they saw as good science.

And in 2013, a scientific integrity review panel found that two supervisors committed “scientific misconduct” by dismissing the concerns of staff members when trying to shrink the agency’s habitat map in Oklahoma.


— More on endangered species: A new United Nations report say the world is on the precipice of a major loss in plant and animal biodiversity that could have devastating repercussions of human lives and livelihoods, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. Up to 1 million plant and animal species face the threat of extinction. Here are some of the potential consequences of that loss, per Fears:

  • Loggers are imperiled by the introduction of invasive species, such as crop-destroying stink bugs and tree-killing emerald ash borer in the United States.
  • Farmers will likely also have to contend with the loss of pollinators such as bees and other insects.
  • And commercial and indigenous fishers could see the collapse of their fisheries with the loss of coral reefs to warming and acidifying oceans, "affecting billions of coastal residents who rely on seafood for protein."

— 2020 watch: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s new climate plan has gained the support of Sunrise Movement, the youth climate activist group that has backed the Green New Deal. After the Democratic presidential contender unveiled a proposal Friday that includes a call for carbon neutral electricity generation by 2030 as well as emission-free vehicles and buses by the same year, the group praised Inslee's timeline. “Jay Inslee’s first policy proposal shows that he wants to put the full weight of the federal government behind a 10-year full-scale mobilization to move towards the 100% clean energy future we deserve,” the group’s executive director, Varshini Prakash, said in a statement.

— Concert tickets will keep going to the Interior Dept.: The Interior Department has a new contract with the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, which has been providing the agency free concert tickets for years. The partnership has already been going on for four decades, but the new 20-year contract signed this week comes despite the department’s internal watchdog expressed ethical concerns about the practice. Questions were raised last September, E&E News reports, after then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke received tickets that were worth more than $43,000 a year. The new longer-term contract was signed to replace a contract that expired last week.

— All along the clock tower: Emails reveal struggles within the General Services Administration to explain why the Old Post Office Tower, a National Park Service facility, reopened during a partial government shutdown this year. “The fact that we aren't able to answer these inquiries is making us look suspicious when there's nothing to see except perhaps some bureaucratic incompetence,” GSA Chief of Staff Robert Borden wrote in a Jan. 3 email, which was revealed following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by American Oversight, which shared those emails with E&E News. “The conversations reveal new details about the Trump administration's efforts to defend its decision to reopen the park service site inside the president's namesake hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue even as other public sites remained closed in what would become a 35-day shutdown,” per the report.

— Virginia won’t yet join regional cap-and-trade program: Gov. Ralph Northam signed a state budget over the weekend that included language to bar the state from joining a regional carbon cap-and-trade program, The Post's Gregory S. Schneider reports. Northam’s decision not to veto language blocking the state from joining nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is notable for the Democratic governor who campaigned on the issue. In a statement, Northam panned “disappointing and out-of-touch provisions that will harm Virginians with respect to fighting climate,” and called RGGI a “critical avenue” for addressing carbon emissions. A Northam spokesman signaled the governor may address climate issues in a future budget proposal.

— Tribe tells South Dakota governor she is "not welcome" on their reservation: The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council voted to ban South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) from its reservation southwest of the capital Pierre, in what The Post’s Reis Thebault writes is the latest action by the state’s largest tribe in a years-long feud over the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. In a letter, the tribe told Noem she was “not welcome to visit our homelands.” Tribe president Julian Bear Runner “pledged that the ban would last until Noem rescinds her support for a pair of laws the state passed in response to promised demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline project." The state laws are designed to prevent protests that may disrupt pipeline construction.


— "Don’t get in an argument with nature”: The city of Davenport, Iowa has for years avoided permanent flood protection, the only major city on the Upper Mississippi to do so. Instead, it took the approach of “'embracing' the natural flow of the river with parks, wetlands and flood-friendly buildings,” The Post’s Frances Stead Sellers and Annie Gowen report. But that approach may no longer suffice. Last week, the river crested at a record 22.64 feet, flooding several downtown blocks after prolonged rain and snow melt. “But it’s the long-term threat — from bigger and more frequent floods, spurred by extreme weather and riverfront development — that is making some residents lose faith in the temporary barricades,” Sellers and Gowen write.

— The impasse over disaster aid is stalling recovery: About a third of the structures at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida were destroyed after Hurricane Michael last October, and nearly every other one was damaged. But progress has stalled on repairs at the base because lawmakers in Washington have yet to move forward on a disaster funding package that’s meant to not only help recovery at the base, but help with others impacted by natural disasters like in Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. “While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has put $1.2 billion into Hurricane Michael relief in Florida as of April, the Air Force can no longer pay for new recovery projects,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

— Meanwhile in New York: City officials are preparing to install four-foot-tall soil sacks along the East River to prevent damage from storm surges, a new strategy that comes ahead of the seventh hurricane season since 2012's devastating Hurricane Sandy. “For up to five years, they essentially would form the only barrier to keep water from again rushing into the low-lying neighborhoods around the South Street Seaport,” the New York Times reports. “City officials say they are a temporary step while permanent solutions to New York’s vulnerability to big storms are still being planned and debated.” Some residents are already criticizing the sandbag solution that comes after six years of assessing how to respond to storm risks.

— And in California: The Ventura County Fire Department is set to release hundreds of goats to eat dead brush as a way to prevent the vegetation from sparking deadly fires. “They’ll eat until we like the way the landscape looks, and then we move them to another area,” Captain Ken VanWig, who leads vegetation management at the fire department told Bloomberg News. “They’re very effective.”


Coming Up

  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the 2020 fiscal year Interior budget on Tuesday.  
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation holds a hearing on “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maritime Infrastructure Vulnerabilities in an Emerging Arctic” on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on banning asbestos on Wednesday.

— Meteoric May: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower reached its peak early Monday, but according to NASA, “you should be able to catch a few meteors streaking across the sky any morning the week before or after.”