A little bug causes a big stink in Utah

  • Tiger beetle

    Paul Larmer
  • Ranger Rob Quist at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

    Paul Larmer

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

CORAL PINK SAND DUNES STATE PARK, Utah - -This might be a little rough," says Rob Quist with a grin, as he guns the engine of his four-wheel drive truck.

Suddenly, we are lurching toward a 50-foot-tall sand dune, wheels spinning in the soft pink sand. As the slope steepens, the truck roars and fishtails, unable to find a grip, but then we are on top.

"If we had let a little air out of our tires," says Quist, "we could crawl up this as easy as a bug."

Or, make that a tiger beetle.

For though the valley of sand dunes before us - dotted with islands of grass, brush and tilted ponderosa pines - beckons, Quist hasn't brought me up here for a joy ride. The 34-year-old ranger for the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southwestern Utah's Kane County wants to show me the habitat of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, a predacious insect no bigger than a thumbnail.

These sand dunes, marked with the tires of yesterday afternoon's contingent of four-wheelers, amount to the entire universe for the endemic tiger beetle. Researchers have found only between 1,600 and 2,900 adults in recent years, most within a small portion of the 3,700-acre park.

"You see those grassy swales down there, that's where they live," says Quist. "When I drive my four-wheeler by there in the spring, the beetles just fly up everywhere."

The beetle has complicated Quist's life. In addition to keeping the peace among thousands of off-road vehicle enthusiasts and a growing number of photographers, hikers and even New Age dune worshippers attracted to the park, he now has to accommodate a beetle some want to see listed as a federally protected endangered species.

"I've lost sleep worrying about this thing," he says. "I live in this community, and my kids go to school here, yet I represent the resource and all the people who use it."

But there is a potential solution. Quist and a handful of state, federal and county officials have drawn up a conservation plan that would carve out some 300 acres of the park for the beetle and non-motorized users, while still allowing off-roaders the use of most of the sand dunes. If signed, the agreement could hold off a listing - and possibly more strict conservation protection measures - for the tiger beetle.

But like so many attempts at finding middle ground in the West, the tiger beetle plan is under attack. On one side is the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which petitioned the federal government to list the beetle back in 1992. On the other is a Las Vegas-based group, the Nevada Trails Coalition, which has vowed to fight the conservation agreement in court, if necessary.

Family fun or beetle genocide?

Christina Adams, the executive vice president of the trails coalition, says that despite the involvement of several ORV riders, the formulation of the conservation plan has largely happened without the input of the off-road vehicle community, "and we're the only ones negatively affected by this plan," she says.

The agencies have scheduled public meetings on the draft plan for this month; Adams, 45, would like time for the coalition to gather its own scientific evidence about the effects of off-road vehicles on the beetles. She suspects they have been overblown by federal scientists and environmentalists.

"Why do the areas we ride so much have so many beetles while the areas we don't have so few?" asks Adams, who rode one of 14,000 four-wheelers across the park's dunes last year. "We're not saying there shouldn't be an area for the beetle, but they don't need to take a whole swath in the middle of the sand dunes that is the safest place for our kids to ride."

Larry England, a botanist who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered plants and invertebrate program for the intermountain West, says the area protected in the plan is the most valuable habitat for the beetle. Scientists have found that more than 90 percent of the beetles live and breed in an area just 1,980 yards by 440 yards.

England says the evidence showing that ORVs damage beetles is compelling, though not conclusive. Before Memorial Day weekend last year, he and other researchers marked 250 tiger beetles in one area. Following the weekend, "We noticed a number of injured adults that had gotten run over by riders," he says. "They were as good as dead because they were probably not reproductively viable."

Adams claims that test shows little about actual effects because the sand was hardened by recent rains and the beetles were tied to the ground by thread tethers. "Sure, if you run over them enough times, you'll probably kill some," she says. "But that's not going to happen in normal conditions."

The conservation plan calls for some additional field studies to learn more about the beetle and ORVs. State park ranger Quist says the results of those studies will be incorporated into future plans. "Maybe we'll find that moisture levels for the larvae under the sand affects the beetles more than ORVs," he says.

While disagreements over the science are great, the cooperative nature of the beetle conservation plan has impressed many, including England, who admits he originally wanted to see the tiger beetle listed. "Most of rural Utah has expressed a lot of antipathy toward the Endangered Species Act, so you try and hear them out," he says. "This beetle conservation plan includes more conservation measures than most."

Both Quist and England give the Kane County commissioners kudos for participating in a cooperative planning process. The commissioners have maintained their support for the plan despite the politically traumatic creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in their backyard back in September. That designation by President Bill Clinton meant the probable loss of a giant coal mine in the county and prompted the commissioners to bulldoze several roads the county claims within the monument (HCN, 10/28/96).

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance believes the conservation plan isn't protective enough.

"I'm afraid the Fish and Wildlife Service has compromised on habitat to come to terms with the ORVers," says Alliance attorney Heidi McIntosh.

McIntosh says her group is not only concerned about ORV damage to beetle habitat. A portion of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes extends into a wilderness study area managed by the Bureau of Land Management just north of the state park. Though ORV use is a grandfathered use within the Moquith Mountain Wilderness Study Area, the Wilderness Alliance contends the BLM has allowed four-wheelers to destroy the wilderness character of the area by destroying vegetation. The group has appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals to force the BLM to more carefully manage ORVs. It has also brought a lawsuit against the BLM for failing to protect another rare dune species, the Welsh's milkweed.

If Moquith Mountain were to become wilderness, as some environmentalists have proposed, ORV users would be permanently kicked off the BLM lands.

Locals say riding on the dunes is part of their custom and culture and Moquith Mountain should never qualify as wilderness.

Come on people now

Walking back to his truck after a brief stroll to some grassy beetle habitat, Rob Quist confides that the peace and beauty of the sand dunes are a source of inspiration for him. "Sometimes I just stand here and soak it in," he says.

But he worries that lawsuits from both environmentalists and ORV groups will disrupt a place where people of all stripes have so far found a way to get along.

Driving through the campground, we see a campsite occupied by a Toyota Tercel and a tent next to one filled with a huge RV and two four-wheelers. All seems peaceful.

"We have vocal people on both sides, but the majority fall in between," he says. "They're really quite accepting of each other's form of recreation."

High Country News Classifieds