American burying beetle becomes player in Keystone pipeline drama

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Plans for a 1,700-mile-long tar-sands oil pipeline across the Midwest face a variety of political and logistical hurdles. To that, add one more: a large black beetle with red spots whose habitat, it seems, lies right where the Keystone XL pipeline would go.

Out of 23 endangered species that range on or near the pipeline route, only the American burying beetle would be adversely affected by the controversial, 36-inch pipeline, a recent environmental review says.

Canadian pipeline company TransCanada has already moved into beetle relocation mode.

Over the summer, a University of Nebraska researcher led a massive effort to find, trap and relocate more than 2,000 of the beetles from the pipeline’s proposed route through Nebraska. A 100-mile-long corridor atop the pipeline route was mowed to a nub in the hope of leaving the route unattractive for the beetles to return.


On Wednesday, three environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in Nebraska, challenging the right of federal agencies to authorize work to help save the beetle from a pipeline that hasn’t even been authorized yet.

The U.S. State Department, named in the suit along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, held hearings in Nebraska and elsewhere along the pipeline route last week on TransCanada Corp.'s application for an international permit to build the pipeline, which would haul bitumen extracted from Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and the Texas Gulf Coast.

The decision is not expected until the end of the year, and conservation groups in their lawsuit said it is premature to start moving beetles and mowing prairie grass before the company has permission to build the hotly contested pipeline.

‘To be working on the pipeline route when you don’t have a permit and you’re in a public process really makes a mockery of that public process,’ Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview with The Times.

The Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth joined in the suit, which alleges that rare native grasses were cut down as part of the beetle project. They want the court to declare the endeavor a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Further, conservationists say the State Department’s environmental review should have taken into account not just the beetles, but also migratory birds such as the critically endangered whooping cranes whose path northward from Texas goes several hundred miles along the pipeline route.

Michael George, a field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Nebraska, said the federal government issued a permit to University of Nebraska researcher Wyatt Hoback to carry out the beetle relocation and research over the summer.

George said he understood that Hoback was paid separately by TransCanada for mitigation of pipeline impacts on the beetle.

‘Our review of what he was doing was that it was all consistent with his permit. Now, the fact that he was funded by Keystone and they were benefiting from some of his work, yeah, there’s no doubt about that,’ George said.

He also said the knowledge gained from Hoback’s research is likely to prove invaluable to efforts to preserve the beetle. The mowing of the prairie grass, he said, was carried out under state authority and was intended to prevent carrion from returning to the pipeline right-of-way, and thus discourage the relocated beetles from returning because their food sources would be gone.


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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle