Utah sand dune beetle at center of land use debate

Utah's Coral Pink Sand Dunes are a popular off-roading destination. (Photo: Germaneon, Wikimedia)
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Trish Anderton

Off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts are alarmed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle as a threatened species and setting aside habitat for it.

Fish and Wildlife says the beetle lives only in 577 acres of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a popular off-roading destination in south-central Utah. The federal agency is proposing to identify 2,276 acres as critical habitat – or about 70 percent of the dunes, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

A Fish and Wildlife biologist told the Tribune no decisions had been made about whether off-roading would be banned in the protected zone, but OHV fans and some local officials are worried it will.

The agency is accepting public comments at regulations.gov, and 279 people have written asking for an extension to allow more time for the public to study the proposal and weigh in. Many use a form letter supplied by the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that advocates for motorized access to public lands. But some ask in their own words.

“I am twelve years old, and I ride on public land that I am allowed to ride on,” comments Isaac Butts. “Will you please extend the time period? So they can have more time to study the tiger beetle species,and know more about them. So they can see what they're doing, and make sure that they don't do something they might regret later, and close the coral pink sand dunes without reason?

Twenty-four people weigh in against closing any dune areas.

“This proposal is ridiculous,” writes Jana Hoyt. “People have been recreating on those lands for many years, and the beetles are still there. Beetles can burrow, and won't be affected by people using the sand dunes. When did an insect become more important than humans?”

Christopher Deuel writes that off-roading at the dunes is a special treat for his family. “At least twice a year we venture from Las Vegas to spend family time and build memories my children can cherish forever. We love being able to take a short drive into Kanab to visit friends, go out for dinner and catch a movie all while ‘camping’ at the dunes in our RV and exploring the dunes on our OHV's,” he writes, adding that it “saddens” him to think the dunes might be closed off.

Just six people have argued for listing the beetle as threatened. Rose Chilcoat feels both the insect and the dunes deserve protection: “[T]his place of incomparable unique beauty and tranquility has been transformed into a place of motorized mayhem with but a few small patches designated for the non-motorized visitors,” she writes. “The declining population of the Tiger Beetle is but the canary in the coal mine for the other species that require undisturbed wild lands to survive.”

The Coral Pink Sand Dune tiger beetle is about a half-inch long and has “striking colouration,” according to the conservation website Arkive.org; its wing cases, which cover the insect’s body, are mostly white, and its legs are covered in fine white hairs. It roams the dunes during daylight hours, eating other insects; at night it burrows into the sand.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are the lead agencies that administer the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife must consult with the public when designating “critical habitat” to help an endangered species recover. While endangered species are considered to be at risk of extinction, a threatened species is “likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range."