LINCOLN — The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has sparked protests in Washington and talk of a special legislative session in Nebraska.
Landowners are pondering lawsuits to halt the controversial 36-inch steel tube of crude oil from Canada.
And now Gov. Dave Heineman is calling for the pipeline to bypass the unique Sand Hills.
But as the political debate rages, an extensive and expensive back-scene battle is being waged to clear a rare silver-dollar-size bug from the pipeline's path.
The American burying beetle, a large, colorful bug known for its prowess in parenting and digging, is an endangered species federally and in Nebraska.
The world's greatest concentration of the beetle is now in Nebraska's Sand Hills, smack dab on the route of the $7 billion, 1,700-mile-long pipeline.
That has prompted a three-year effort by federal and state wildlife agencies and developer TransCanada Inc. to avoid damage to the delicate beetle along 100 miles of the proposed route.
TransCanada has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a beetle expert and crew to survey, trap and relocate 2,400 of the less-than-2-inch-long insects.
The company is mowing the route to keep beetles from returning. It has agreed to pay for beetle-friendly ranching practices. And it's prepared to finance three American burying beetle trust funds — to the tune of nearly $4 million — to replace disturbed and destroyed habitat.
It has even agreed not to use mercury vapor lighting on a pump station in the Sand Hills to avoid attracting the beetles, which might lead to their death via predators or overexertion.
The beetle is among a dozen threatened or endangered wildlife species evaluated during federal environmental reviews. But the beetle, the only species deemed to "likely" face an adverse impact, clearly took the regulatory cake when it came to the number of meetings, negotiations, studies and expense.
The work undoubtedly will prompt a debate about whether too much or too little is being done to protect a tiny critter that comes out only at night, but for TransCanada officials, it is just part of the job of building pipelines.
"It is a protected species. So you take the appropriate action to mitigate the impact," said company spokesman Jeff Rauh.
"In this situation we had to spend a little more, but it's the cost of doing business. ... We want to ensure that the species survives," said Mike Schmaltz, TransCanada's environmental manager.
State and federal wildlife officials say the company has been a good partner.
But a renowned photographer whose career has focused on endangered species said it was outrageous and alarming that TransCanada was being allowed to disrupt and relocate such a species before the company had secured a federal permit to build the pipeline. The U.S. State Department won't make a decision on that until December.
Trapping and moving endangered species is never a good idea, said Joel Sartore, a Lincoln-based author and contributing photographer for National Geographic magazine.
"It's one thing to survey for the insect, but it's another thing to trap it and move it and possibly kill it," Sartore said.
Nebraska was the only state with American burying beetle populations to allow the trapping and relocation. Forty people worked throughout August in Keya Paha, Holt, Greeley and Wheeler Counties under the supervision of Wyatt Hoback, a University of Nebraska at Kearney biology professor who has studied the beetle for 13 years.
Nebraska's endangered species laws are tougher, officials said, than the laws in South Dakota and Oklahoma, other pipeline states where the beetles are found. Nebraska requires the relocation work to mitigate the loss of beetles by construction.
Hoback, hired by TransCanada for the project, said the risk of killing beetles is minimal — maybe five out of 1,000 — using a trap-and-release technique he developed for road construction mitigation work.
Officials said TransCanada was willing to clear the route before gaining federal approval of the project so construction could begin immediately next spring. Because American burying beetles are most active in June and August, waiting might have delayed work a year.
Sartore criticized the effort.
"This is one of the most beautiful insects we have in our state. We're lucky to have such a creature," he said. "Endangered species should be viewed as a resource instead of just something you try to move out of the way in the middle of the night."
Hoback and government officials praised the company's commitment.
"Keystone XL has been fantastic to work with. They've not wavered once in their environment commitments," said Mike George, supervisor of the Nebraska field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Halting the work or forcing the pipeline to relocate — which his agency suggested initially — was not possible, said George, because the Sand Hills have not been declared "critical habitat" for the beetle, and the pipeline wouldn't jeopardize its existence.
His agency's final environmental opinion will be completed in a week or two.
Trapping American burying beetles is a messy, smelly job — in fact, some of Hoback's students sent a video about their work to "America's Dirtiest Jobs" (though they did not hear back from the TV reality show).
Dead lab rats — the beetle bait — are placed in five-gallon buckets, which are buried and covered with a soil-topped lid.
The captives, typically five per trap per day, are hauled several miles away to suitable habitat. No bugs, marked with a paint spot, have returned to the right of way leased by TransCanada.
Hoback said the massive undertaking drew funny looks when the crews — clad in hard hats, protective clothing and snake-proof chaps, as required by the company — checked their traps each morning in the remote hills and meadows.
But Hoback said even pipeline opponents gave crews access to their land for beetle trapping.
"They were curious, and some people thought we were crazy, but they were incredibly receptive," Hoback said. "Some fed my students dinner."
Fifteen to 18 people will keep working until mid-September, when the beetles hibernate, to ensure that the right of way remains clear.
The grass is mowed to keep the soil dry — the beetles avoid such areas — and crews remove any dead animals to avoid luring bugs back.
Hoback plans more studies, including whether the heat generated by the pipeline, estimated to raise the soil temperature up to 10 degrees in winter, might kill some beetles by disrupting their hibernation or drying them up.
If the project is approved, TransCanada will create a $2 million trust in Nebraska alone to finance habitat purchases and good beetle practices by landowners.
Hoback said the trust may finance additional research that will aid the species' long-term survival.
But even if the pipeline route is changed, the effort has enhanced the knowledge base about the nocturnal bugs.
"If they don't get their permit, from our perspective, there's no harm done," said George with Fish and Wildlife. "I think the value that we receive in the science outweighs the risk."
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