Environmentalists made an emergency bid Thursday to protect a rare beetle thought to be extinct decades ago and found only in pine rockland near Zoo Miami.
The request to declare the Miami tiger beetle endangered comes as pressure mounts to develop the bug’s habitat in the last, largest tract of pine rockland outside Everglades National Park. Earlier this year, a Palm Beach County developer announced plans to build a Walmart-anchored shopping center and apartments in one corner. County officials are considering using other parts of the tract for an Orlando-style amusement park.
“This is the very last habitat on earth known for this creature,” said Jacki Lopez, a staff attorney for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. The group sued federal officials in 2011 to speed up action on a backlog of more than 750 species under consideration to be designated as threatened or endangered species.
A number of groups filed the petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including the center, Tropical Audubon, the Miami Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, the South Florida Wildlands Association and others.
The wildlife service has 90 days to respond, said spokesman Ken Warren. If the agency agrees to list the beetle as endangered, wildlife managers can then move more quickly to protect the beetle, issuing an emergency rule to protect it for 240 days while drawing up a permanent listing and management plan.
Earlier this month, Ram Realty, the company developing the shopping center, said it planned to submit a habitat conservation plan to federals officials. An earlier plan it submitted would likely lead to the destruction of habitat and death of endangered bats, butterflies and plants, officials said.
The Miami tiger beetle is considered incredibly scarce, said Randolph-Macon College entomologist C. Barry Knisley, who helped document the 2007 discovery after a collector looking for butterflies in the Zoo Miami pine rockland found a small population.
“This is the rarest of them all and its restricted to a small piece of the pine rockland habitat,” Knisley said. “I looked in just about all the other pine rockland preserves in Miami-Dade and could not find it.”
Tiger beetles are predatory insects and need open sunny habitats like pine rockland to see their prey and warm themselves. The U.S. has about 200 species of tiger beetles, Knisley said. Five already are protected by the Endangered Species Act, while two more species, including one in Central Florida, are candidates.
The beetles play an important role in indicating the health of a habitat, Knisley said. “It’s legitimately rare and these developments could be the knockout punch.”