A tiny fighting beetle stands to be the next challenger to plans for a Walmart shopping center and sprawling amusement park on Miami-Dade County’s last big chunk of pine rockland.
On Friday, U.S. wildlife managers proposed adding the Miami tiger beetle to the endangered species list. The beetle, considered one of the two most threatened tiger beetles in the U.S. and avidly sought by collectors, was thought to be extinct for decades until a biologist found a small population in the vanishing forest near Zoo Miami in 2007.
A second population was found nearby just this year, although fewer than 100 are thought to exist.
Based on their review, wildlife officials now believe the beautifully iridescent beetles, fierce fighters that dart around the sandy forest floor in search of prey, are “presently in danger of extinction throughout their range,” said Roxanna Hinzman, a field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s ecological services’s office.
If listed, the tiger beetle would become the eighth rockland species declared endangered in recent years. While the listing does not stop projects, it does mean that developers have to consult with federal wildlife managers or risk legal sanctions and fines.
The agency did not include critical habitat, an important piece of the designation, because biologists are still trying to understand how the beetle lives and what threatens it. Biologists have also not been able to fully inspect land where the shopping center and Miami Wilds theme park are planned. The agency also needs to consider economic impacts, said Robert Tawes, who oversees the agency’s listing branch in Atlanta.
A habitat plan will likely be proposed next year, he said.
Rockland around Zoo Miami, called the Richmond tract because it was once part of a largely undisturbed U.S. Navy blimp station, is the last intact swath of forest outside Everglades National Park. For years, it was mostly owned by different government agencies and the University of Miami.
But in 2013, UM sold 88 acres — some of it handed over to the university by the federal government for free — to a Palm Beach County developer hoping to build the Walmart-anchored shopping center. The deal outraged environmentalists and neighbors, who formed a pine rockland coalition and also began questioning plans for the 100-acre Miami Wilds amusement park.
Last December, several environmental groups including Center for Biological Diversity, Tropical Audubon, the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and South Florida Wildlands asked for an emergency review of the beetle. Federal officials rejected the request, but in Friday’s announcement they eliminated a bureaucratic step that would have added three more months to the process.
What that does is signal the agency is taking it seriously.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Jaclyn Lopez
“What that does is signal the agency is taking it seriously and is acting quickly to make sure we know about the beetle and have the strongest safeguards to protect the beetle,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Jaclyn Lopez.
With so many species already on the roster, the addition of the beetle will likely make little difference in the two projects.
The county has already scaled back Miami Wilds, said architect Bernard Zyscovich. For the time being, it has scrapped $930 million plans that included a 400-room hotel that spilled onto nearby rockland it hoped to buy from the U.S. Coast Guard. The federal ownership would have made moving forward much more difficult. Plans now being developed only include a water park and retail built on a parking lot and land that has already been asphalted over. A controversial exit ramp from the Turnpike that would have cut across rockland has been dropped, Zyscovich said.
“The project will be determined by the available area as opposed to the project being determined by a full blown yes or no,” he said. “We’ve heard the community loud and clear.”
Federal officials are also still reviewing revised plans for Coral Reef Commons submitted by developer Peter Cummings and do not expect to finish until the spring of 2017. Cummings’ original proposal, which included a shopping center anchored by the 158,000-acre box store, preserved just 40 acres of rockland spread around the project. New plans expanded the preserve to 52 acres in two large areas connected by a wildlife corridor. On Friday, Cummings said his team was making “good progress,” but declined to elaborate.
Officials at UM, which still owns about 50 acres under contract to Cummings, declined to comment.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Jan. 13 at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus.