Scientific American, December 2017
The beetles have a lovely ranch: slate tile, a Viking range, knotty oak paneling and a wood stove with a preening taxidermy turkey on the wallabove. The porch is lined with rocking chairs that face out to a massive walnut tree and beyond it, clover fields that glow in afternoon sun. A phoebe hollers from her nest; a scissortail flits between fence and field. It’s a spectacular place to be a beetle, here in southern Oklahoma’s Lower Canadian hills: 4,000 acres of blackjack oak and shortleaf pine and bluestem meadows and thicketed brooks and vivid orange butterfly milkweed.
There are lots of weapons at the beetle ranch. Amy Smith, a biologist who conducts research there, keeps a .38 strapped to her waist. Preston Smith, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall oil-and-gas man from Texas—no relation to Amy—helps manage the property; he wears a beautiful silver-and-black combination .45 and .410 revolver engraved with his name. Grace McNichols, an undergraduate research assistant from John Brown University in Arkansas, where Amy Smith teaches, carries a bowie knife. The team is there to protect endangered beetles, but they tote the weapons to protect themselves—from rattlesnakes and bears and feral hogs. It’s wild country. “You packing?” Smith asks her team. They pat their weapons and head out.
The forest is fading to black as the team jumps into a mud-spattered Kawasaki Mule loaded with a small cooler, a large cooler, a stack of five-gallon buckets, a few brightly colored plastic tubs and a couple of shovels. Smith, 46, wears camouflage galoshes. She tucks her shoulder-length brown hair into the collar of her hoodie and steers the ATV along a red clay road. She blasts through two fearsome mud puddles, then jostles up a ridge through scrub and woodland to a meadow speckled with coreopsis and Indian paintbrush. The women haul two buckets and a cooler to a spot beneath an elm tree. It’s breezy this evening, with a faint whiff of death.
The smell comes from the cooler, from which McNichol now pulls three dead animals—a small bunny, a large rat, and a standard-sized quail—all dead, all formerly frozen, all currently decomposing. The women place a few shovelsful of dirt into a wide plastic tub with the bottom cut out, weigh the animals and lay them in the tub huddled against the edges as if they’ve curled up for a nap. Smith places another tub over the top and, through a hole drilled in the center, lowers a petri dish attached to a length of dental floss. In the dish are two stunning inch-and-a-half-long insects. They are American burying beetles—Nicrophorus americanus, ABB for short—the endangered creatures that this property has been purchased to protect: black and orange-Rorschach-blotted, with two orange puffballs at the tips of their antennae that recall, from a certain angle, handlebar mustaches. The beetles feed and breed on rotting carcasses, and this particular experiment is aimed at understanding what type of dead creatures the beetles prefer. The ranch is a conservation bank—officially, the American Burying Beetle Conservation Bank. Preston Smith and his operation, Wildwood Credits, which runs the bank, take mitigation credits—money—from oil and gas producers, transportation agencies and others who want to drill or build in beetle habitat, and plow it into the property. Amy Smith’s job is to help make the ranch the best place a beetle could possibly live.
The petri dish hits the dirt and the beetles scurry out: one burrows into the soil and quickly disappears; the second flips over, six legs akimbo, and plays dead. In the morning, Smith and McNichol will check the buckets. If all goes according to plan, the beetles will have selected a carcass, buried it and mated. Though it doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the beetles reject the carcasses and refuse to mate. “So,” says Smith, “I sing a little Barry White for them.” She hopes they’ll feel love coming on.
Not everyone, however, is so romantically inclined toward the American burying beetle. It’s a controversial creature these days, especially in Oklahoma, where its habitat overlaps the oil and gas fields that power the state’s economy. Thanks to the insect’s inadvertent habit of getting in the way of drilling and development projects, it is now threatened not only by natural forces beyond its control, but by political ones. The state’s representatives in Congress, along with advocates for the state’s oil and gas industry, have targeted the beetle for removal from the federal list of endangered species. “The listing of the American burying beetle unnecessarily places burdensome land-use restrictions to build roads, water resources, and energy infrastructure in many of our communities,” Sen. James Lankford said in a statement earlier this year in which he requested “the rapid delisting of the beetle.” One observer likened the tousling over the beetle to an “invertebrate Game of Thrones.”
In March of last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to consider a petition to remove the ABB from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. “We did a deep dive into the science,” says Margaret Byfield, the executive director of the American Stewards of Liberty, a property-rights organization that spearheaded the petition, “and came to the conclusion that it didn’t warrant further protection.” The agency, which is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on the beetle’s fate in December, may be poised to agree—for reasons involving anecdotal observations and controversial climate models.
At stake is not only the survival of an insect that few people have heard of or understand, but also oil industry livelihoods, local transportation budgets, and political futures. As with many other endangered species—birds, fish, grasses, Florida panthers—the dispute over the beetle’s condition highlights the murky science around species recovery and the intersection of politics, policy and evolving conservation science. “There is much more behind all this,” says Andy Middick, a consultant who tracks beetles for energy companies, “than the survival of a species.”
The American burying beetle is one of the biggest and brightest beetles you will see in North America—if you do, in fact, find yourself in a position to see it. Most people don’t. The beetle spends much of its life cycle underground, and the above-ground part takes place at night, in close proximity to dead things. The beetle is as obscure a creature as it is bizarre. Even scientists who have devoted their careers to the species—there are a handful, all of whom stumbled into the field while studying something else—and the federal agencies tasked with protecting it don’t know a whole lot about American burying beetles. They know, thanks to extensive museum collections, that the insects were once found in 35 states and three Canadian provinces, and that sometime around the 1920s their populations began a steep decline. By 1989, when the insect was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the beetle’s known population had dwindled to two locations—Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, and eastern Oklahoma.
Scientists also know that the beetles are habitat generalists—they can be found in forests, wetlands and grasslands, but require a moist environment to survive. They are highly mobile: one captured beetle rode a tailwind more than 18 miles in one night in search of carrion; most, however, average about one mile each night. The beetles aren’t especially picky about what type or size remains they eat—mammals, birds and snakes are all fair game—but for breeding purposes the dead animal’s weight must fall between 100 and 300 grams. If the carcass is too big, the insects can’t move or process it; if it’s too small, it won’t feed enough of the beetle’s offspring. When beetles find a suitable carcass, they flip over, using their legs like a conveyor belt to shuffle the creature to a spot where the soil is right. “They like soil that’s easy to dig in”—loose, loamy silty—“kind of a no-brainer,” says Smith. Like backhoes, the beetles excavate the soil from underneath the critter and then, when it’s fully buried, strip it of fur or feather and use an oral-anal secretion to transform the carcass into an orb of slime—a carrion meatball, if you will. They mate. The female lays an average of 15 eggs. When the larvae hatch, male and female alike feed the young from the buried cache much as birds nourish their chicks, mouthful by rotted, regurgitated mouthful. After 45 to 60 days of pupation, the grown insects emerge from the ground and begin searching for their own moldering meat.
These are the things beetle experts know. But the ABB is a difficult creature to study—it lives underground and flies at night; sample sizes are small; endangered species research requires special permits; the work, literally, stinks. And there are still glaring gaps in the research. Scientists and regulators don’t, for instance, have any idea how many beetles there actually are in North America. Surveys have been haphazard, conducted on an annual basis in only a very few locations—Smith’s beetle bank, a competing conservation bank nearby, an army base in southeastern Oklahoma and a prairie preserve in northern Oklahoma. Nor do those surveys shed much light on actual populations. Ecologists use a variety of assumptions to extrapolate total populations from specimens trapped and handled, “but this beetle violates a lot of those assumptions, because it’s so mobile,” says Smith. “If I extrapolated, it would just be a crapshoot.”
Populations also vary dramatically from year to year—Smith has found dozens of beetles in a spot one year; none the next. No one knows why. “We are still trying to figure out basic life history information,” says Curtis Creighton, a professor of biology at Purdue University Northwest. They suspect the beetles live for about a year in the wild, but they aren’t certain. “How often can they reproduce?” asks Creighton. No one knows. “What kind of carcasses can they subsist on?” That’s the question behind Smith’s rat-bunny-quail research, and a higher-tech study Creighton has designed with Smith’s help to analyze stable isotopes in beetle exoskeletons to see what they have consumed as larvae. Other experiments in process involve studying the effects of light pollution, wind speeds, and temperature changes on the beetles.
Scientists also don’t fully understand why the beetles began disappearing in the first place. They do have some theories. After it was first listed as endangered, Rhode Island Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Christopher Raithel wrote the ABB recovery plan. He knew nothing about burying beetles. “I started asking, what does Block Island have more of than anywhere on the mainland?” What it had, Raithel concluded, was carcasses—ringneck pheasants, introduced from Asia in the late nineteenth century and still plentiful on the island. On the mainland, right-sized carrion species like woodrats and migratory birds had declined because of hunting, habitat fragmentation and competition from other carrion feeders like raccoons, skunks, possums, and foxes that prosper on the edges of human habitation. One theory, indeed, ties the beetle’s decline to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which once blanketed the eastern half of the United States in massive, sky-darkening flocks of billions upon billions of 100-300 gram birds. On Block Island, pheasants appeared to fill that hole in the food chain.
There were no similar populations of pheasants in Oklahoma, but Raithel and other beetle specialists believe that the two environments do have some things in common. Oklahoma is, like Block Island, relatively dark: outdoor lights appear to disorient American burying beetles more than other species of nocturnal burying beetles, and electrification may have been a factor in their decline. Nor does either place have extensive agriculture—the beetles aren’t found among row crops. As with many ecological puzzles, there’s likely not one smoking gun to explain the beetle’s decline. “Ultimately,” says Creighton, “it comes down to the fact that we’ve altered their habitat.”
Our understanding of that habitat has also shifted in the years since the beetle was listed. In 1990, when Creighton was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, he found a summer job conducting beetle surveys for the Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory. He had planned to do his doctoral research on sexual selection in socially monogamous birds; he also knew nothing about burying beetles. His new boss at the agency taught him how to catch the insects: place rotting meat in a “pitfall trap”—a 5 gallon bucket staked down, through bolts screwed into the sides, with rebar (to keep pets and possums away), then covered with a piece of wood with a hole in the top. The beetles, attracted by the carrion smell, fall through the hole and can’t fly out. Before the surveys began, however, the woman who trained him transferred to a new job in New Mexico. With his brief training, Creighton now knew more about the beetles than anybody else in the state. “So I went out looking.”
He drove around eastern Oklahoma with buckets and carrion, and located beetles in places they hadn’t been seen before, including a large population at Camp Gruber, an 87-square-mile national guard base southeast of Muskogee. He was hooked: his dissertation research shifted from birds to burying beetles. In the years that followed, surveyors found ABBs in Nebraska, Arkansas, South Dakota, Kansas and Texas as well, in a mostly contiguous area at the far western edge of the beetle’s former range. In 2007, husband-and-wife entomologists Dan Howard and Carrie Hall discovered a population at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northern Oklahoma, a 40,000-acre Nature Conservancy native prairie preserve. Earlier surveys hadn’t turned up any beetles on the property; Howard and Hall believe that populations there are highly cyclical—teams will find thousands one summer, just a handful the next. “Life is hanging on the edge here,” says Howard, now at the University of New Hampshire. Howard and Hall plan to survey several nearby ranches in coming summers. “It will give us a good picture of the far western rim of the beetle’s range,” says Howard.
Academic scientists are not the only people helping to map the beetle’s range. Federal regulators in Oklahoma will only issue permits for oil and gas wells, wind farms, roads, pipelines and transmission lines located in potential beetle habitat after they have been surveyed for beetles. To do so, the companies heading up those projects hire consultants like Andy Middick of Beacon Environmental Assistance Corporation—a large man, with a large beard and a large mud-specked white truck that stinks of decay. All throughout beetle season—roughly May through October—Middick keeps the bed of his truck loaded with coolers of decomposing Walmart fryer chickens and a “secret proprietary concoction” of “rotten juice”—putrid gizzards soaked in water. “My neighbors love me,” he says.
Middick sets 250-300 beetle traps a year on behalf of oil and gas and other clients seeking permits to disturb potential beetle habitat, putting about 30,000 miles each summer on his truck. He goes anywhere a beetle might live and a driller might drill, up and down the state of Oklahoma and into Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas. As Middick steers his truck north out of Tulsa, the subdivisions and scrubby hill country give way to rolling tallgrass prairie—country utterly different from the buggy, muggy, densely vegetated forest farther south near the beetle bank. Beetles live here too: what the two landscapes have in common, Middick says, are large, undeveloped tracts of land.
Those tracts aren’t, however, as undeveloped as they used to be. Middick steers the truck off a paved country road and onto a smaller dirt one. It’s an area he’s surveyed often, a rural spot gone industrial: a tangle of derricks, frack tanks, drilling pads, flowlines, pipelines, and workover rigs. A string of saltwater trucks hauling produced water from wells clatters past on the narrow road, coating Middick’s truck in a layer of road dust, fine as baby powder. Oil country, Middick says, is also methamphetamine country, where a large man with a large beard hauling 5-gallon buckets through the underbrush—the same type of bucket some people use to mix meth—has to be careful. He likes to place his traps in ditches on the sides of county roads hidden from nearby properties. “There are lots of guys kind of eyeballing me,” Middick says. “
People are always out there stealing stuff, and they get pretty protective.”
Middick has been wandering this inhospitable countryside in search of American burying beetles for 10 years now, following very specific instructions set out by the Fish and Wildlife Service. To ascertain whether beetles are present on any given property, he must lay traps a minimum of five consecutive nights of good weather, a maximum of one-half mile apart. There’s nothing systematic about where he looks for them, however: “I go where the oil goes,” Middick says. If a pipeline or a drilling area expands to the west, his surveys expand to the west. If beetles are found, the known beetle range expands as well. Much of what we know about the beetle’s range has come from surveys like Middick’s: the data, he says, “are very random.”
If Middick’s survey determines there are no beetles on site, the project can proceed. If he does find a beetle, his clients have limited options. In the past, companies could perform a “bait away” procedure, dropping carcasses just outside the affected area to attract the beetles off-site. But regulators disallowed the practice after studies found that the bait also attracted possums and northern leopard frogs, which ate the beetles. Since then, permittees have had three choices: they can relocate their projects to beetle-free territory; they can buy their own beetle habitat to replace what they disturb; or they can pay one of Oklahoma’s two conservation banks to do it for them. Both opened for business in 2014, and each protects around 4,000 acres of beetle habitat. The money that permittees pay into the banks goes both to the acquisition of new beetle habitat and long-term stewardship and maintenance of the property. Preston Smith is managing partner of American Burying Beetle Conservation Bank, where Amy Smith works. Oil and gas, his other profession, is far more predictable. “I wouldn’t put it up as a real highly competitive investment,” he says. “But the intangible side of this is rewarding as well.” Smith likes hunting on the property; he likes protecting beetles.
The beetles do seem be prospering at the ranch. The land’s previous owner had used it for hunting: “He had some food plots in place, ponds, forested areas—he basically had accidentally managed for American burying beetles,” says Amy Smith. The conservation bank has improv
ed on that happy accident, using prescribed fire to knock back invasive plants and open up the tree canopy, reseeding native grasses and controlling for fire ants, which compete with the beetles for carrion. “It’s a little too soon to tell,” she says, “but the numbers are good.” Each year, beetle captures have improved upon the one before.
The numbers aren’t as good, however, for people paying into the banks. The credits are expensive—between $8,000 and $15,000 for every acre of beetle habitat disturbed, depending on location, timing, number of credits and duration of the disturbance. Small operators can sink a small vertical well for less than $100,000 in areas with the right geology: “When mitigation credits hit and they’re $60,000, that’s a big cost,” says Middick. Transportation projects, too, have encountered insurmountable obstacles in the ABB: one Oklahoma county had to scrap a planned road because the cost of beetle mitigation exceeded their budget. The result has been a steady stream of critical news articles about the frustrations the beetle—and its protectors—have created. “It gets very nasty at times,” says Middick. “Most people don’t understand why a beetle matters.”
It is those costs and conflicts that led to the push to remove the beetle from the endangered species list. “There are a lot of problems with regulating a species that’s essentially invisible,” says Raithel. In the years since mitigation credits were introduced, local Fish and Wildlife officials have found themselves under enormous political pressure. In 2014, an Interior Department review found that senior officials in the FWS’ Tulsa office used flawed models and misleading maps to downplay the impacts of the pending Keystone XL pipeline on the beetles, then retaliated against scientists who objected. In 2015, Oklahoma’s two Republican senators, James Inhofe and James Lankford, attempted to attach a provision delisting the beetle to the National Defense Authorization Act. The measure didn’t pass, and later that year Lankford directed the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether beetle mitigation funds were being misused. The final report, issued in January, found no major malfeasance but recommended better monitoring.
In August 2015, American Stewards of Liberty, the property rights organization, filed the petition to delist, arguing that the historical range of the beetle was based on unreliable, anecdotal information. “Today we know that the species is residing in a lot of states, a lot of counties, more than a hundred-fold beyond when the species was listed,” says Byfield, the group’s executive director. “It’s in more places than we knew.”
But the review appears to have only raised more questions about what and how we count when attempting to save a species that gets in our way. The delisting petition, for instance, included in the beetle’s current range not only those locations where the beetle has been found, but also three states where zoos and wildlife agencies have attempted to reintroduce them—Massachusetts, Ohio and Missouri. The Massachusetts and Ohio populations have not done well, however. The exception is southern Missouri, which has seen some encouraging results since the St. Louis Zoo began reintroduction efforts in 2012. But it is still far too early to call the effort a success. “The goal is to be able to walk away from it and say, ‘here is a self-sustaining population, ’” says Bob Merz, who heads the Missouri reintroduction effort. “We may find parameters that make reintroduction work but at this point it’s many years away.”
Are the beetles still endangered? It is true that they are found in more states now. But they are still missing from most of the places they once frequented. “I thought if we looked, we’d find them in other places,” says Creighton. “But we haven’t.” Even with the new discoveries, the beetle still occupies less than 10 percent of its historic range, “and in the few populations that we know of,” Creighton says, “at least two have disappeared”—in Texas, where the beetle has not been seen in years, and in Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma, where a logging land swap knocked out what had been a robust population. “The data,” says Creighton, “are certainly consistent with a species that is in danger of disappearing.”
The data grew even more convoluted last summer, when the Fish and Wildlife Service circulated a draft Species Status Assessment for scientific review. The results surprised everyone. The assessment used geographical models to determine that there was sufficient habitat for the beetle, in terms of total acres, concluding that roads, pipelines and other oil and gas projects were minor components of the landscape. “What this misses,” says Hoback, “is the creatures that these burying beetles rely upon to breed also rely on unbroken areas. Edge effects completely change the dynamics of the forest and the species that live there. I’m not convinced that such projects are really ‘minor’ when beetles need a large unimpeded area,” says Hoback.
And then the report went a step further, using climate models to determine that, regardless of protection efforts, the beetle was likely, over the next 70 years, to go extinct throughout the entire southern portion of its range: Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas (where the beetle appears to have disappeared already). “It seems that when temperatures are high”—around 75 degrees F at midnight—“the beetles are not active or can’t reproduce,” says Hoback. These observations are anecdotal, however; there has not yet been an research, peer-reviewed or otherwise, to prove them out. “Historically,” notes Hoback, “they occurred down through southern Texas and Florida, so there is some debate.”
It’s unclear what the Service plans to do with that conclusion. Oil and gas industry advocates—no fans of climate change models—worry that regulators plan to use the climate change hypothesis to continue beetle protections in the absence of compelling evidence that habitat destruction alone will destabilize populations. Beetle devotees, meanwhile, worry that the Service will use the climate models to downlist the species in the portions of its range where, conveniently, nobody wants it. Climate change, in that formulation, renders both the beetles and the Oklahoma conservation banks obsolete. “What’s scary about that conclusion,” says Hoback, “is that they can say that the southern population of beetles is not worth trying to save.”
In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to issue a “12-month finding” on the beetle—and it will not be clear until then whether the final conclusions match those of the draft assessment. Following a 30 to 60 day public comment period, the service then has a year to make the findings final. But whatever decision the Fish and Wildlife Service makes, it is almost inevitable that the agency will be sued—by industry and property rights groups, if the beetle’s status stays the same; by environmental organizations, if it is downlisted or delisted. “Fish and Wildlife is going to end up in court regardless,” says Hoback.
If the beetle is removed from the federal list of Endangered Species, what will become of it? That likely depends on its location—thanks to variations in climate both atmospheric and human. In 2015, the same year the delisting petition was filed, a group of Rhode Island third-graders campaigned successfully to make the American Burying Beetle the state’s official insect, and if the beetle loses federal protections, Rhode Island will almost certainly continue to shelter a bug that has become beloved in the state. “We’re basically playing every card we can play,” says Raithel. Wildlife workers on Block Island provide carrion and discourage outdoor lighting; 40 percent of the island is protected open space; they teach about the beetle in schools all over the state. “We just spent 25 years monitoring and trying to protect this thing,” Raithel says. “We’re not going to walk away from it.”
The beetle’s future is less certain, however, in Oklahoma and neighboring states—whether the science behind the dire climate-related predictions for the population is accurate or not. On protected lands like the beetle banks and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, small populations may persist for some time. But, says Hoback, “the more habitat fragmentation that happens the smaller the populations of ABBs remain, and small populations can’t respond as well.” When that happens, adds Creighton, “it’s just a matter of time before the beetle’s gone.” There are many people in Oklahoma who are willing to live with that prospect.
The American burying beetle is not an easy creature to root for. It traffics in dead things. It gets in the way of human endeavor. It is expensive; it is inconvenient, less exoskeleton-and-hemolymph insect than symbol of all that opponents believe is wrong with American environmental laws: land-use restriction, excessive regulation, infuriating delays, meddling bureaucrats and an industry of consultants like Middick, with their coolers full of dead things to attract imperiled things that no one knows is there and no one is likely to miss.
Does an insect matter? Why should we care for the smallest among us? Invertebrates provide essential services to the rest of the world: nutrient cycling, pollination, pest control, and decomposition. Sometimes insects provide more direct benefits as well: researchers are currently investigating the use of the antimicrobial compounds the burying beetles secrete as antibiotics or preservatives. The beetles also reduce breeding grounds for maggots. One dead mouse can spawn 15 beetles—or, alternatively, play host to 300 disease-transmitting flies that visit cowpies and then land on your picnic lunch. “From a citizen’s perspective the beetles are important,” says Hoback.
But of course, we survived for almost a century without the help of the American burying beetle. And we may, if protections are removed, have to live without them in the next. It is a flawed and compassionate and altogether human project, saving an endangered species—deciding as a nation that we should protect something at risk. Scientists and citizens labor in muggy dawns and dusks, in thickets teeming with chiggers and deer ticks, surrounded by the smell of death. It’s an effort as peculiar as the beetle itself: underground, beneath notice, bearing a whiff of loss and futility.