By Stacey ReeseOctober 24, 2019
How does a 1.5 inch insect help cut down on disease and eliminate pests? The American Burying Beetle feeds and shelters its larvae in the carcass of small animals, known as carrion. The male and female work in unison to bury the carcass and remove all of the fur or feathers from the body. This use of small animal carcasses makes them an efficient natural recycler, returning nutrients into the soil while simultaneously cutting down on food sources for flies.
The beetles have been on the endangered species list since 1989. The primary threat to the beetle is loss of natural habitat through human development. Historical records show this beetle once lived in 35 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. Now, natural populations are known to occur in only four states: Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Nebraska.
Tulsa District Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, conducts two surveys each year to track the relative abundance of the American Burying Beetle.
"The population monitoring program began in 2014," said Stacy Dunkin, American Burying Beetle recovery program manager. "In response to increasing regulation from US Fish and Wildlife Service for impacts to the beetle," he added.
Members of the environmental staff trap the beetles using large buckets, baited with rotten meat. Each trap can attract beetles over a 570 acre area. According to Dunkin, his team has seen fluctuations in population over the years, but overall beetle numbers are increasing.
The 2019 surveys netted a total of 18 beetles. The beetles are measured, checked for sex, photographed and the photographs are further analyzed by a computer program.
"The program gives us the ability to measure difference in size and color patterns and even identify individuals" said Kevin Stubbs, fish and wildlife biologist with USFWS.
In Oklahoma, there is a 2,000 acre mitigation offset area dedicated to the beetle's survival near Wagoner and Cherokee counties. In addition to the surveys conducted each year, the district also conducts a prescribed fire burn on this property.
According to Biologist Jason Person, the burns are beneficial in maintaining open areas of native grasses which are preferred habitat for the ABB. Burning will also reduce invasive species such as the Eastern Red Cedar, thereby increasing habitat for the ABB. Burning allows nutrients to be recycled, which attracts animals such as small mammals and birds the beetle needs to begin its life cycle. Mice and rodents often increase after prescribed burning because of the new growth and availability of forb seeds, a type of vegetation that dies down to the ground after flowering.
According to Chris Gilliland, Fort Gibson area environmental specialist, the program also provides assistance to sister districts in properly educating and training other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' employees on all aspects of ABB surveys and the process to properly obtain the required certifications to conduct these studies.