The American burying beetle has never been charismatic. Quite the opposite: The roughly-one-inch-long, orange and black bug spends its days searching for small, dead animals, dragging them underground and laying eggs in the rotting carcasses. Not much of a crowd-pleaser.
But the beetle’s fiercest enemies hate it for another reason: Because the insect is endangered, businesses have been forced to stall or forgo developments in its protected habitat.
And now, the future of wildlife conservation could fall on the beetle’s poor little exoskeleton. As the Trump administration tries to recategorize just how threatened the bug is – part of a broader attempt by the administration to weaken protections for species in peril – our willingness to save the beetle or let it get squashed will also determine whether professionals in government beat out partisans and whether science prevails over special interests.
The burying beetle was first classified as endangered in 1989, when scientists said that its habitat range – which previously extended to 35 states and part of Canada – was reduced to only two known places: Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, and in eastern Oklahoma. Today, the beetle appears to reclaimed plots of territory in at least nine states, thanks in part to the conservationists who reintroduced it.
But the beetle has become a victim of its own success. Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed “downlisting” the insect from “endangered” to “threatened,” citing the bug’s revival. It issued the proposal despite warnings from scientists that the species is still in peril, especially because it faces substantial obstacles in the coming years, the most pressing being climate change. The government’s own assessment of the beetle’s chances shows that if even moderate projections of climate change come to pass, that shift would wipe out much of the species in the next 50 years.
Ordinarily, downlisting a species’ status wouldn’t be much of a problem, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting land and freshwater species, has historically provided creatures the same automatic protections regardless of semantics. But under the Trump administration’s recent proposal, “threatened” species would no longer receive the same guaranteed protections as their “endangered” counterparts. Instead, the agency would determine rules for protection on a case-by-case basis.
The administration’s rule also removed a key phrase from the original regulation, which mandated the government to list species based on the best scientific data “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” The administration has promised that economic data wouldn’t affect its decision-making to change the status of a species, but that’s about as believable as the president’s claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax.
Consider, for a moment, that the petition to downgrade the American burying beetle’s status came from the Independent Petroleum Association of America and conservative groups that oppose government restrictions on land use. And the man in charge of the bug’s downlisting, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, is a former oil and gas lobbyist himself, whose clients included the IPAA.
There can be no doubt about this: The only justification for knocking the insect’s protections down a peg is for economic reasons. The primary reason so many people dislike the bug is because they fear they could lose out on jobs or local business because of some stupid beetle.
Such an outlook is small-minded, for two reasons. The first relies on the merits of the species itself: The burying beetle is an extraordinary life form that performs an important function in its ecosystem. By pulling dead animals into the ground, it helps recycle organic material and sustain the food chain. It’s also considered an “indicator species”: The health of its population indicates whether the environment as a whole is healthy.
The second reason is more important: Humankind today is witnessing a mass extinction event the likes of which our planet has seen only at its most dire moments in history. Biodiversity itself is on the verge of collapsing, which poses an existential threat to humans, too.
We don’t have the luxury to choose which species is convenient for us to protect. We don’t have time to make sure a protected habitat is worth the forgone jobs. And we certainly don’t have the need to make sure oil and gas interests are happy with our environmental policies. We need science – and science alone – to guide our conservation efforts.
The American burying beetle doesn’t benefit from any widespread admiration from the public. If it goes, few people will likely care or notice. But that’s exactly why it deserves our attention. What happens to this hapless insect could portend disastrous policy for other species in peril that could see their protections downgraded or reduced under pressure from special interests. Let’s root for the bug to prevail.