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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to reclassify an endangered species found in Nebraska and several other states to a threatened status, a lower designation. 

Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders said the agency is proposing to downlist the American burying beetle, a species that required a special permit application for a Sandhills transmission line project. A public comment period on the reclassification will open this week.  

The wildlife service calls the burying beetle "one of nature’s most unique creatures."

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has advocated for the beetle for years, was quick to respond. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the center, said it counted it as a victory in 2015 when the Obama administration rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which it said would have devastated some of the beetles' last remaining habitat. 

The Trump administration has since signed a permit for construction of the pipeline, which has a proposed route through Nebraska. 

“The science shows the American burying beetle is even more endangered now, yet the Trump administration is severely reducing its habitat protections,” Greenwald said. “(Interior Secretary) David Bernhardt and his crew are only downlisting these unique beetles to please their oil and gas industry benefactors.”

In Nebraska, the American burying beetle is found in the Niobrara River area and Sandhills in the north central part of the state, and Loess Canyons in the south central region. It is a large carrion beetle that buries small carcasses, lays eggs beside them and feeds its larvae from the carcasses. 

The beetle recently caused the Nebraska Public Power District to apply for an incidental take permit for its R-Project transmission line because of beetle habitat that lies within the project's path. 

Kevin Stubbs, biologist with the Oklahoma ecological field office, said the proposed rule change wouldn't affect any permit on the beetle related to that project. The proposed change would take at least a year or more to become final.  

Lueders said the agency began a species status assessment on the beetle in 2015. That year, it also received a petition to remove the beetle from the endangered species act. It found in 2016 the petition may be warranted. 

The assessment received input from fish and wildlife field officers across five regions, multiple species experts and peer reviewers in states throughout the beetles' range, Lueders said. It also worked with Native tribes, other federal agencies and research institutions. 

"This proposal is based on a thorough review of the best available science and information, including the recently completed (assessment)," Lueders said. 

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The Fish and Wildlife Service is also proposing a rule that would tailor protections to only those the beetle needs for recovery. For example, it would exempt activities related to ranching and grazing in the northern plains, which includes Nebraska.

"With our partners, we will continue to work to improve the status of the beetle’s populations,” Lueders said.

The proposed rule recognizes the burying beetle faces different threats across its range, and it reflects those differences, Lueders said. It was first listed as endangered in 1989.

Jonna Polk, field supervisor with the Oklahoma ecological field office, said the species range has been reduced to about 10 percent of its historical range. The species no longer meets the definition of endangered, but future threats are likely to cause decline in the population within the foreseeable future, she added. 

The primary known threats to the beetle are increasing temperatures due to climate change and ongoing land use changes, Stubbs said. The southern parts of the beetles' range would have temperatures that could exceed the beetles' tolerances within a 20- to 30-year period, and the northern plains populations within a 50-year period. 

"There really isn't anything we can do protection-wise to address the climate risk," Stubbs said. "We have left protections for other land use related risks in place for all of the northern populations because within a 30-year window they would be the only populations potentially left."

Lueders said efforts to monitor and conserve the species and its habitat will continue across federal, tribal, state and private lands, including the Sandhills area in Nebraska.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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