KANAB — Citing threats such as climate change, drought and off-highway vehicles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday proposed to list as "threatened" the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle — found only in Utah.
“This gorgeous, fierce little creature is found in only one place on earth, and it deserves our respect and needs our protection," said Taylor Jones, the endangered species advocate for Wildearth Guardians.
In addition to the classification as threatened, the federal agency is proposing to designate 2,276 critical acres as habitat for the insect, which lives in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park outside of Kanab and in the Moquith Mountain Wilderness Study Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The proposal, which is up for comment for a year before a final decision is made by the agency, sets up a fierce fight among environmentalists and public land managers.
"Listing is never good for anything, especially the species," said Fred Hayes, director of the Utah State Parks and Recreation Division. "The best bet for the beetle is to let us continue to retain management of those critical areas of habitat."
Hayes said it is the state division's management of the Pink Coral Sand Dunes Park that generates revenue to have that land set aside, with some restrictions on off-highway vehicle use.
Absent any off-roading and the revenue for the park dries up and it would shut down, he stressed.
"If we pull out, we are the only thing enforcing the rules requiring ATVs to stay away from the vegetation and certain areas. Other than that, the beetle is gone," Hayes said.
But environmentalists have criticized land managers for years, accusing them of failing to take proper protective steps for the species before litigation was brought and ultimately a settlement agreement was reached with the federal agency.
Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the BLM, for example, has been too lax in its oversight of off-road use, which crushes the species and degrades vegetation, further drying out the soils.
“This important listing could at long last put an end to destructive ORV use in one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the state. BLM’s stubborn refusal to protect this remarkable species and its habitat made this listing proposal inevitable,” she said.
The dunes the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle inhabits cover 3,500 acres, of which 2,000 acres is within Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, according to McIntosh.
Although core areas of its habitat have been closed to ORVs since 1997 (207 acres within CPSD State Park and 370 acres on BLM land), McIntosh said off-roading still occurs in 52 percent of the habitat in the central population in the state park.
Hayes said multiple federal, state and local agencies formed a technical team nearly two months ago. The team toured the area and is continuing to gather information to be submitted during the comment period.
"We are hoping to preclude the listing," he said. "It is critical habitat for the beetles and we will lose access to it."