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Betting on a BeetleAgencies Team Up to Help Save the Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle
by Brendan Davidson
Photo Credit: Mark Capone, USFWS
Relative to its body size, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle (Cicindela albissima) is estimated to run approximately 20 times faster than a human-being, making it a formidable predator in the insect world. Despite its impressive abilities, the species once faced significant threats in its limited habitat in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes area of southern Utah. Climate change, off-road vehicle use in tiger beetle habitat, and drought were identified as significant threats that warranted federal protection of the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Since the species was proposed for ESA protection in 2012, collaborative efforts over the course of a year between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Utah State Parks, Kane County, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resulted in a reduction of these threats and their effects. Consequently, the Service and its partners were able to protect the species and its habitat, making it unnecessary to list the tiger beetle as a threatened species.
Service biologists and university researchers have been studying the species – characterized by a metallic green and copper head, a dull milky white body, and fearsome looking mandibles – for the past 20 years, and know that the tiger beetle's habitat is fragile. The beetle only lives in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, roughly 27 miles (43 kilometers) west of the town of Kanab, in south central Utah. Inside the park, the beetle occupies approximately 20 percent of the 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) covered by the park.
The limited range of the tiger beetle makes it susceptible to habitat loss. Off-road vehicles use has had devastating effects on the tiger beetle's habitat, range, and the creatures themselves. Off-road vehicles use not only causes direct damage to the species, it also damages the vegetation that supports the prey species the tiger beetle feeds on. Off-road vehicles use in conjunction with the drought related effects of climate change also reduces soil moisture in the tiger beetle's ecosystem. Service biologists have found that rainfall associated with soil moisture is an important natural factor affecting the population dynamics of the tiger beetle.
Photo Credit: Mark Capone, USFWS
In response to damage done to tiger beetle habitat, the BLM , Utah State Parks, and Kane County stepped up to provide voluntary protections for the beetle. The BLM and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park created a partnership for the development and implementation of conservation measures to protect the tiger beetle and its habitat. In 2009, a conservation agreement established two conservation areas that prohibited off-road vehicle use.
This conservation agreement proved to be effective in enhancing protections for the tiger beetle. Heartened by their progress, the BLM, the Service, Kane County, and Utah State Parks signed an amendment to the 2009 conservation agreement this year, which enlarges one of the two conservation areas from 207 acres (84 ha) of land to 266 acres (108 ha), to assist in beetle protection efforts. This expansion protects 88 percent of the tiger beetle's occupied habitat from off-road vehicle use. The amendment provides additional protection for islands of habitat between the two conservation areas to assist in the dispersal of the species by adding 263 acres (106 ha) of protection with so-called island habitats.
"I think it's great that Kane County, the BLM, and Utah State Parks were able to come together to create a conservation agreement to address threats to the species identified in the Service's proposed rule," says Paul Abate, a biologist in the Service's Salt Lake City Field Office. "This collaborative effort amongst the multiple stakeholders allows these entities more flexibility in conserving the species while also strengthening their commitment to do so. It would be beneficial to apply similar solutions to other species."
The efforts of the BLM, Utah State Parks, and Kane County continue to be effective. In 2007 there were just 700 beetles left in existence. After the first agreement was signed in 2009, a 2010 population estimate showed that there were 1,264 beetles. At the time of the enactment of the conservation agreement amendment in early 2013, beetle populations were estimated to be 2,494 in number.
The joint efforts of the BLM, Utah State Parks, and Kane County are responsible for the quick turnaround from the beetle being proposed as threatened in 2012, to being withdrawn from listing in 2013. This is further proof of the power of conservation partnerships between federal, state, and local agencies.
Brendan Davidson is a communication contributor in the Services Mountain Prairie Region.
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