Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a mitigation option after the discovery of an American Burying Beetle. The general options are establishing and maintaining their own mitigation lands, working with a third party to provide and maintain mitigation lands or purchasing credits at an approved mitigation bank.
STUART — Early one morning in the oil fields west of McAlester, two farmers are having a conversation on the side of a county road, one leaning out of the driver’s window of a Ford pickup, the other standing in knee-high grass in front of what is probably his house.
Andy Middick watches them in the rear-view mirror of his four-door Honda Ridgeline.
“We’re going to have to make this fast,” Middick says, “before they get too curious about what we’re doing.”
He’s not exactly the most popular guy in rural Oklahoma. Some people see him hiding five-gallon buckets in the underbrush and assume he’s a meth dealer. Others notice him cruising slowly down a gravel back road and think he’s a thief, looking for scrap metal or checking to see if anybody is home. Worst of all, some people realize what he’s actually doing — setting traps to find American burying beetles — and that really makes them mad.
“I’ve had guns pointed at me,” Middick says, leaving his truck and stomping into the muddy tallgrass. He glances back to check on the two farmers; and yes, they’re watching him. “These beetles can shut a project down and cost people their jobs. So they take it very seriously around here.”
He finds a white bucket behind a fallen log near a barbed-wire fence, where his assistant left it the day before. Baited with rotten chicken gizzards, the stench is sickening — Middick usually comes home smelling so bad, his wife refuses to do his laundry. Sometimes he just throws his clothes away.
“It doesn’t bother me at all anymore,” he says, shrugging. A former zookeeper, Middick crisscrosses the state every summer to conduct beetle surveys for BEACON Environmental Assistance Corp. The Edmond-based company has a variety of clients, including construction firms and oil companies, and Middick won’t disclose who asked for this particular survey near the small town of Stuart in southeast Oklahoma.
Reaching inside the bucket, he grabs a handful of small black bugs and examines each one carefully before shaking them off his arm and letting them fall into the grass. They weren’t burying beetles, so Middick rushes back to his truck before the farmers get any closer. A mile down the road, he stops to check another trap. This time, he pulls out a distinctively black and orange beetle nearly 2 inches long, dwarfing dozens of other bugs caught in the bottom of the bucket.
Middick measures it and scribbles a few details into a logbook before releasing the beetle, which flies away into the open field in search of another rotten carcass to bury and eat. And now his report will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is experimenting with a new way of preserving the endangered species in Oklahoma — an experiment that doesn’t seem to be making the burying beetle any less controversial.
“Some people really hate this bug,” Middick says. “They hate it.”
When the burying beetle landed on the Endangered Species List in 1989, scientists knew of only two places on earth where the bug still lived — on Block Island, not far from Nantucket off the Northeast coast, and in Sequoyah County in eastern Oklahoma. That was an alarming loss of territory for an insect that once thrived along a 1,500-mile arc stretching from the Great Plains through the Midwest and into New England.
Burying beetles get their name from the way they literally bury their food — a dead field mouse, for example, or a fallen bird. And that’s an important public service for the ecosystem, removing carcasses and kick-starting the cycle of life by turning dead animals into fertilizer. Its extinction would have far-reaching consequences.
Within a few years, however, additional sightings of the beetle were reported in Cherokee, Muskogee and Latimer counties. And by the 2000s, burying beetles were known to be living in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Perhaps conservation efforts were paying off. Or maybe the beetle was never as endangered as first thought.
“They didn’t know about all the beetles because they hadn’t looked for them,” says Fred Storer, the principal engineer at Hydration Engineering, an environmental consulting company in Bartlesville. Storer has become one of the most outspoken critics of federal burying beetle policies. “If you were to go back today and say, ‘should we put the beetle on the endangered species list?’ the answer would almost surely be ‘no.’”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, among others, has pushed to have the beetle taken off the list. Federal authorities recently began a routine five-year review of the species’ status, which might ultimately have the bug reclassified.
But, at least for now, the beetle remains listed. And when one is found, mitigation efforts must be made before drilling a well or laying a pipeline or paving a road that could kill a beetle or disturb its habitat. Some oil producers describe literally baiting the beetles away from a threatened site with a string of dead rats, while others might set up a sort of mini-preserve with a patch of land left undisturbed for the beetles to use.
But for the past year, federal officials in Oklahoma have offered an alternative not yet available in any other state.
‘Simple and easy’
The Noble Foundation used to have roughly 3,000 acres of prairie east of Ada where researchers could study the best methods for nurturing pastures, using controlled burns to mimic the natural cycle of grass fires and rebirth. Later, retired Congressman Bill Brewster used the property as a hunting ground for whitetail deer, leaving the area mostly undeveloped.
When construction of the Keystone XL pipeline cut across the ranch a few years ago, surveys found an almost unprecedented number of burying beetles, marking the area as prime habitat. To mitigate the damage, several areas were set aside as “beetle preserves,” but that was going to create long-term land management issues for TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.
For other endangered species in other states, TransCanada had simply bought “credits” in a conservation bank, relieving the company of having to preserve any habitat itself. The concept is simple: If you disturb habitat in one area, you purchase a credit to pay for the maintenance of habitat somewhere else, owned and operated by a separate company. Once the credit is paid for, TransCanada need not worry about it again.
“It worked for other species, so why not the beetle?” says Terry McKenzie, president of Mitigation Solutions USA, a company that operates several kinds of conservation banks across the country. When TransCanada contacted McKenzie to suggest a beetle bank in Oklahoma, the old Noble Foundation ranch seemed like the ideal location.
His company now calls it Muddy Boggy, one of two privately owned beetle conservation areas in southern Oklahoma. Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved a 562-acre expansion of the operation, and MSUSA is also planning to open a separate 11,000-acre site nearby. Federal regulations require a strict regimen of controlled burns to nurture the grass, and MSUSA employs a full-time crew just to eradicate the beetle’s natural predator: fire ants. But they can’t use pesticides, only boiling water — carried in a trailer pulled by a tractor and delivered with 100-foot hoses.
Companies like TransCanada don’t want to take on that kind of workload, and that’s why they’re willing to pay MSUSA for beetle credits. Prices can range up to $15,000 per acre, according to industry sources.
“We’re keeping industry on the move in Oklahoma,” McKenzie says. “We make things simple and easy so they can focus on what they do best.”
Large developers can negotiate a bulk purchase of credits, not only saving money but also streamlining federal permits. Simply turn in a credit voucher with your beetle survey, and your project can proceed.
“This helps keep projects on schedule,” says Kenna Carmon, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which has reserved $5.3 million in credits to use over the next 10 years. That’s probably more than the state would have spent baiting and relocating beetles, but “it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison for cost,” Carmon says. “While the previous method was somewhat cheaper, it at times could delay projects.”
Other bulk purchasers include the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, which has reserved 250 beetle bank credits to offset various road projects across the state. But not everybody can afford to buy credits in bulk.
Storer, the environmental consultant from Bartlesville, sent a letter earlier this summer to Sally Jewell, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, saying that when it comes to protecting the burying beetle, not everybody has to play by the same rules. Plant a crop, for example, or build a suburban housing development, and you can get away with not even doing a beetle survey, much less buying conservation credits, Storer says. But drill an oil well in the same area, and the beetle can add thousands of dollars to your expenses.
Current policies “damage the viability of the Osage oil and gas industry,” Storer told the secretary.
By itself, his letter might not have drawn much attention. But it has circulated widely among small oil producers, especially in Osage County, inspiring many of them to send letters of their own, snowballing into a concerted effort to reform federal policy. In Osage County, the average stripper well produces less than one barrel a day, leaving a profit margin so thin that one beetle can be the difference between making money or losing it, Storer says.
“If you have a million-dollar well and you have to buy $30,000 in beetle credits, well, you can shrug it off as just another expense, part of doing business,” he says. “But for a $100,000 well? A $50,000 well? It’s a whole different magnitude.”
But that doesn’t have to be a problem, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where officials emphasize that they introduced the option of conservation credits at the request of the oil industry. If producers can’t afford credits, they can consider one of the other options.
The general options are establishing and maintaining their own mitigation lands, working with a third party to provide and maintain mitigation lands or purchasing credits at an approved mitigation bank.
“We don’t have any restrictions on the options,” says Kevin Stubbs with the Tulsa office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “They can propose any reasonable solution that fits their circumstances.”
Oil producers, however, aren’t necessarily aware of those other options, especially in Osage County, where the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is involved in the permitting process. Several oil producers told the Tulsa World that the beetle banks were the only option federal officials presented to them.
“If there is an affordable alternative to conservation credits,” Storer asks, rhetorically, “why would anyone buy them?”
‘Protecting a bug’
West of McAlester, a humid morning is turning into a squelching hot day as Middick opens the seventh and last beetle trap. It’s almost 10 o’clock, when federal policy requires a beetle survey to be over, so the bugs can bury deeper into the ground and stay cool.
Before Middick can finish measuring the last of them, a car stops along the gravel road and a woman rolls down the passenger window to ask what is going on.
“Just doing a survey,” Middick says, trying to avoid any details. She’s not satisfied until he explains exactly what the smelly five-gallon buckets are for.
“The burying beetle, eh?” the woman says.
Middick braces for an insult, maybe even a confrontation.
“Well, if you don’t find any,” the woman says, “throw a bunch of them out there and say you found them.”
Middick looks relieved but confused.
“We don’t like the oil companies,” she explains. “They care more about protecting a bug than they do people.”
As the car pulls away and the burying beetle flies off back to the pasture, Middick shrugs and chuckles. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
Michael Overall 918-581-8383