Bugs in the plan


Despite the opposition of myriad conservation organizations, lawmakers, activists, and celebrities like Darryl Hannah, the Keystone XL pipeline has seemed well on its way to federal approval. Where star power has failed, however, an inch-long, carrion-dependent beetle might succeed.

The state of Nebraska, which a significant portion of the 1,700-mile pipeline will cross, boasts the country's greatest concentrations of the endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). The nocturnal, orange and black beetles -- which are found in only six states, including Nebraska, South Dakota, and Oklahoma -- get their name from the adults' habit of interning animal carcasses in underground chambers, in which the females lay their eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the carrion.

TransCanada conducted surveys on the beetle in 2009 and 2010, but they also trapped and moved the endangered critters, and mowed grassland where the beetles live. And those activities gave environmental groups a legal in to slow the project.

On October 5th, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth, Inc. jointly filed a lawsuit against the State Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. The suit claims the federal government is illegally allowing construction activities along 100 miles of the pipeline's proposed route through the Sandhills before the requisite permits and Federal authorizations have been issued.

The purpose of the suit  "is to stop the pipeline," says Amy Atwood, Senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity's Endangered Species Program, by challenging the beetle removal activities and environmental review of the pipeline’s potential impacts to other species under the Administrative Procedure Act, which established and governs rule-making procedures for federal agencies.

"To be working on the pipeline route when you don't have a permit and you're in a public process really makes a mockery of that public process," Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Los Angeles Times.

(It's standard practice for environmental groups to use endangered species as legal leverage to halt environmentally damaging projects. Ironically, though, if critical habitat had been declared for the American burying beetle when it was listed in 1989, the pipeline probably would have been re-routed to avoid the beetle's habitat altogether, scrapping the insect's leverage potential.)

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the beetle's presence along the $7 billion dollar project's path in Nebraska spurred TransCanada to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to hire a consultant and crew to "survey, trap and relocate" 2,400 of the imperiled beetles. The TransCanada crews also mowed parts of the route to keep the beetles from returning, an action the plaintiffs claim "destroy(ed) rare, native grasslands and prairies that may never be restored and which provide important habitat for a range of wildlife species and migratory birds, about to begin migration."

Brett Ratcliffe, a professor and curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum who studied the beetles for nearly 15 years, says it's "absolutely silly" that the Service authorized moving endangered beetles, about which so little is known, from areas where they are known to do well to new locales where their welfare is less certain.

TransCanada maintains that its actions were allowed under a research permit the Service issued. From the Financial Post:

James Millar, a TransCanada spokesman, said the claims in the lawsuit are “false” and “no construction has taken place in Nebraska.” The company, he said, is conducting environmental surveys on the endangered American Burying Beetle at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have moved beetles and mowed some grass to assure the protection of the American Burying Beetle. Mowing – not construction,” Mr. Millar said.

Little is know about American burying beetles' specific habitat requirements, or, more importantly, why their populations have declined. From a conservation and research perspective, this David and Goliath standoff between bitty beetles and big business presents an interesting Catch-22: Pre-pipeline shenanigans, the beetles lived in peace on prime habitat but garnered little public attention and few conservation resources. Post-pipeline shenanigans, the beetles are relocated, potentially to their detriment, but the species is headline news and has finally amassed some public sympathy. What's more, the beetle research carried out as part of the trapping and removal activities may not have even been economically feasible without TransCanada. "Even if the pipeline route is changed, the effort has enhanced the knowledge base about the nocturnal bugs," reports the Omaha World-Herald.

TransCanada also promises to develop a $2 million trust in Nebraska to help replace destroyed or disturbed beetle habitat and pay for beetle-friendly landowner practices -- if the permit is approved that is.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern at High Country News

Images courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Flickr user Walt Hubis

High Country News Classifieds