When the State Department released its environmental impact statement for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline expansion, which would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas, its general conclusion was that the project would have “no significant impact” on most surrounding resources.
The pipeline’s proposed path across sensitive ecosystems and the Ogallala aquifer has sparked concern and debate over its potential impact on drinking water, fisheries, wildlife, air quality and other resources. But the probable impact on one six-legged U.S. denizen is not in question.
Of the 23 threatened or endangered species that lie within the vicinity of the proposed pipeline, only one would be “likely adversely” affected, according to the government’s analysis: the American burying beetle.
While a large red-and-black beetle found mainly in Nebraska may not be the poster species that environmentalists would hope for in arguing against the pipeline for conservation’s sake, the American burying beetle does have the undeniably appealing function of controlling fly populations, among other potential benefits, which also include soil aeration and fertilization and the possibility of its secretions becoming a source for medical and scientific innovation.
The burying beetle is part of a small and unique group of beetles that search out small dead vertebrates, such as prairie dogs, and birds, such as meadowlarks. They then bury and preserve the carcasses in the ground for use as food and as a reproduction site.
While not pretty and certainly unappetizing, the beetle is worth saving, and Wyatt Hoback is leading that effort. Hoback, a University of Nebraska biology professor, was hired by pipeline backer TransCanada to mitigate the pipeline’s impact on the species. He says that the project will make about 1,300 acres temporarily unavailable to the beetles.
By removing carrion from the ground surface, the beetle reduces the number of disease-carrying flies. In addition, because the beetle’s secretions destroy a wide variety of bacteria that would otherwise cause a carcass to decompose, they may eventually lead to the development of new antibiotics or even new preservatives for meat at room temperature.
“After the pipeline is buried 48 inches beneath the surface, the soil will be replaced and native vegetation mixes will be used to restore the habitat to as close to original conditions as possible,” Hoback wrote in an email. “It is anticipated that the habitat will be less attractive to American burying beetles for three years, which is the projected period for vegetation re-establishment.”
To avoid beetle deaths during construction of the pipeline, Hoback and a team of more than 20 people collected and moved more than 2,000 American burying beetles to other suitable habitat areas at least five miles from the proposed pipeline route this past August. The effort “was intense,” Hoback wrote, “involving gaining access to private property, using all-terrain vehicles, replacing bait frequently, and collecting data on all beetles captured. All attracted beetles were marked with paint prior to relocation to ensure that none returned to the pipeline right of way.” Afterward, the pipeline area was mowed and any dead animals removed, ensuring that the beetles would not return.
The goal, Hoback says, is to keep beetles out of the construction zone until work is complete and vegetation can be restored. He is confident that the pipeline will not pose a direct threat to the beetle, unless “vegetation cannot be restored or if heating from the flow of oil affects the soil.”
Should the pipeline route be approved, the soil where the American burying beetles have been trapped out will be disturbed prior to them becoming active in the spring. If construction is delayed, Hoback and his team will be back in June to relocate more American burying beetles prior to construction.
— Written with Wyatt Hoback