Endangered beetle stalls erosion control along bay

June 28, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

GROVE POINT - Jim Twohy's waterfront home might soon tumble into the Chesapeake Bay from atop a 60-foot cliff. He wants to build a wall to save the house, but some meddlesome neighbors are standing in the way.

The neighbors are puritan tiger beetles, a threatened species half an inch long. To protect the bugs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to stop construction of a rock barrier that Twohy and his civic association say is necessary to prevent a half-dozen houses from toppling into the water.

Although Twohy had never heard of the beetle until he applied for a permit last year, it turns out the puritans have highly rigid breeding rituals that happen to clash not only with development but also with many people's ideas of environmental protection.

The drab little insect demands the continued breakdown of cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay - active erosion - so its larvae can tunnel into crumbling clay beside the water. The rock wall that Twohy wants to build would stop the erosion and, thus, could illegally prevent the beetles from reproducing.

"We've heard a lot of support for the puritan tiger beetle from the federal government," said Twohy, 65, a retired computer consulting executive. "But what about the concerns of citizens, their lives and homes, and keeping the Chesapeake Bay clear of muddy runoff and siltation, which is killing marine life?"

Several clashes like this one across the country - over development plans complicated by the Delhi sands flower-loving fly in California or the eyeless Kretschmarr cave mold beetle in Texas - have persuaded some congressional Republicans to push for overhauling the Endangered Species Act.

Many environmentalists, however, argue that such "reform" would gut a highly successful conservation program and is meant largely to help wealthy developers and landowners who want to save money on construction projects.

In Grove Point, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service says, the wall Twohy wants to build could help exterminate one of the world's three remaining Cicindela puritana populations. They are in Cecil County, in Southern Maryland's Calvert County and along the Connecticut River in New England.

Instead of a $300,000 rock wall, the agency wants Twohy and his Chesapeake Haven Civic Association to spend about $412,000 to build a breakwater 150 feet out into the bay. The association's engineer, Frank Falcone, rejects that idea, saying it won't stop the landslides that are threatening the homes and might interfere with boat traffic.

John Wolflin, supervisor of the Chesapeake Bay office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the case presents a conflict in environmental goals - between stopping erosion and protecting an endangered species.

But he said the breakwater would be better: It would reduce some of the erosion caused by waves, while saving a colony of about 250 beetles important for biological diversity.

"This species is already highly vulnerable," Wolflin said. "My job is to do what Congress has charged me to do, which is to not jeopardize the continued existence of a species."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering a biological opinion issued by Wolflin's agency this month, which advised the corps not to issue a permit for a 750-foot-long rock barrier at the foot of the cliff.

"When you've got an endangered species like you do here, that does make projects a lot more difficult," said Bob Nelson, spokesman for the Corps' Baltimore office.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo of California, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and others in Congress are demanding more input from landowners into decisions by the federal government on endangered species.

"The Endangered Species Act is the most rigid law on the books, and there is very little room for public input," said Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy. "It's had an abysmal record of success, with only 10 species recovered out of 1,300 species that have been listed over the last three decades."

But Andrew Wetzler, senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the revisions sought by Pombo are a political favor to developers who contribute to political campaigns. The act should be saved, he says, because it has prevented the extinction of 98 percent of the species listed for protection, including the bald eagle, gray wolf, blue whale and whooping crane.

While only a few species have recovered fully, that is because scientists say this often requires a half-century or longer. The real issue, Wetzler said, is that landowners do not want to pay more to make their projects more sensitive to nature.

"The Endangered Species Act doesn't really stop projects, it only makes them marginally more expensive. And it offers alternatives to do things in a more responsible way that protects society's interest in protecting endangered wildlife," he said.

Puritan tiger beetles are like the Puritans from Colonial New England in that they keep their bodies covered and maintain strict rules about mating.

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