There’s a beetle in Oklahoma that can stop entire construction projects. It’s not dangerous — it’s endangered.
The American burying beetle has frustrated its share of groups trying improve roads or drill for oil, but now it’s inspired a new approach to its conservation. The Cherokee Nation is not only dealing with the American burying beetle but also trying to help bring up its numbers.
A bulldozer and excavator were busy Wednesday moving dirt and rocks where the tribe is building its new, 92,000 square foot Tahlequah hotel, casino and convention center. Officials broke ground in March, and work should be done next year.
But they could be further along. An American burying beetle was discovered at the site.
"It’s really pretty, black with orange spots on it, which makes it somewhat unique in being the largest carrion beetle," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Daniel Finner.
The beetle helps improve soil quality by breaking down animal carcasses during its reproductive cycle.
"If you were to observe it in the wild, you would see it carrying this carcass a small distance before it buries it. So, it’s pretty amazing to see that," Finner said.
But it’s been on the endangered species list for almost 30 years. So, when the tribe found one, it had to come up with a mitigation plan before the land for the new casino could be put into trust.
Work was delayed for months. It’s not the first project the beetle has slowed.
A beetle turned up in 2016 during preparations for a nearly $7 million dollar road project between Muskogee and Cherokee counties. The tribe went the conservation bank route, buying credits from owners of permanently protected land to offset damage being done where the beetle was found.
"Going through that — those efforts to find the bank, the procurement and contracting procedures … probably three to four months it delayed the project," said Cherokee Nation Director of Transportation Michael Lynn.
It can also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of that makes what happened this week in the Cherokee Nation a big deal.
Principal Chief Bill John Baker signed an executive order Wednesday designating 800 acres of tribal land as an American burying beetle conservation and mitigation area for the next 10 years.
"It’s always been the Cherokee way to protect our environment and see that we not only take care of things for today but we take care of things for the next seven generations," Baker said.
The agreement has been in the works for more than two years. The conservation area will function much like privately run conservation banks, but it still represents a new approach.
"This is really kind of the first self-contained in terms of being able to have conservation and development with one entity, in this case the Cherokee Nation," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders.
The land is at National Cherokee Nation Park. Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill said it’s popular for activities like trail riding, bowhunting and camping.
"This agreement allows it to continue to be used for those recreational purposes. So, it’s a beautiful park in Sequoyah County, and anybody who wants to go down there and visit is welcome to do that and … and maybe see a critically endangered species," Hill said.
American burying beetles do already live in the conservation area, but the tribe will also work with the Tulsa Zoo to increase their numbers.
"So, hopefully, at the end of 10 years, it will be a better beetle habitat than it is today," Hill said.
There was just one known population of American burying beetles when it made the endangered species list in 1989. While it’s found in a handful of states today, Lueders says there’s a lot of work to do, and the Cherokee Nation is on the right path.
"We need lots of partners to work on conservation for the American burying beetle, and I’m hopeful that this is one that will be successful in its own right but also an opportunity for others to look at this model to provide for conservation," Lueders said.
It may also be cheaper than the conservation method: trapping beetles and moving them to a new home. One oil company reportedly spent six million dollars in 2012 relocating six beetles.