LINCOLN — An endangered beetle has dodged a disruptive bullet with the rerouting of the Keystone XL crude-oil pipeline.
Construction crews won't be digging a ditch through Nebraska's Sand Hills, perhaps the world's best habitat for the American burying beetle.
The bad news is that the giant beetle probably won't get a $4.5 million trust fund.
Because the new route probably won't affect the burying beetles' prime habitat, pipeline developer TransCanada most likely won't face requirements under the federal Endangered Species Act to mitigate the impact of its project.
No disruption. No beetle trust. No beetle sanctuaries.
"If they are looking at going east of the original pipeline, there should not be an American burying beetle issue there," said Mike Fritz, who deals with endangered species for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Wyatt Hoback, a University of Nebraska at Kearney biology professor hired by TransCanada, said he was told that the beetle habitat deal died with the decision to detour the pipeline.
The company had also pledged $2 million to encourage ranching practices that protected beetles or to purchase land that would be managed for beetles and other local wildlife.
"It would have been a really good thing," Hoback said. "Right now there's not a lot of protected habitat in the Sand Hills where the beetle occurs. It would have allowed for long-term preservation of the species."
Hoback and his students spent months trapping and moving 2,400 beetles from the original pipeline path, which cut across about 100 miles of the Sand Hills. A wide strip of grass was mowed to discourage the return of the beetles, which can fly miles in search of a dead rodent to provide for their family. Construction crews would have arrived this year had not the U.S. State Department decided to delay its permit review until early 2013.
The relocation task was offered to the Discovery channel program "Dirty Jobs," because it involved planting rotting carcasses of laboratory rats in traps fashioned from 5-gallon buckets.
The smelly job also created controversy.
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore said trapping and relocating the beetles before issuance of a federal permit for the pipeline was outrageous. In October, three environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the relocation. That lawsuit is pending.
But Hoback and Fritz defended the work. They said that while it involved some disruption of an endangered species, moving the beetles was better than possibly having them killed by construction work. Hoback and Fritz said few beetles perished in the transplanting process, which previously was used to clear the insects from rights of way for highway construction.
Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said the agreement his company reached with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate damage to beetle habitat was unresolved.
While a new route will most likely bypass prime burying beetle country, Howard said, the new pathway has not yet been determined.
A new environmental review will be conducted to determine whether the American burying beetle — or any other endangered species — will be affected, he said.
"Obviously we have to know where the route is going and if there is an impact on the burying beetles," Howard said. "If there is, we'll honor our agreement."
But the two Nebraska beetle experts doubted that construction crews will encounter Nicrophorus americanus, which is also known as the giant carrion beetle.
Hoback said land east of the Sand Hills, where the new pipeline route will be established, is heavily farmed, which discouraged beetles from living there.
The nearly 2-inch-long, black-and-orange beetle prefers undisturbed land such as that in the grass-covered Sand Hills.
The state now spends approximately $25,000 annually in federal funds to protect burying beetles. Beetle money was used in part to purchase a state wildlife area southeast of North Platte that is prime habitat.
The pipeline, however, would have brought a windfall to the species with a trust similar to that created for endangered whooping cranes in Nebraska.
All is not lost. Hoback said his work provided new insights into the behavior of American burying beetles that he plans to publish. And Fritz said the trapping and relocation provided a unique opportunity to sample the endangered species. Workers uncovered the largest concentrations of beetles in the country, he said.
"They trapped in areas they had not trapped in before," Fritz said. "To have that kind of a corridor to sample through is kind of unusual."
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