Valley elderberry beetle to remain a protected species

Federal wildlife officials have changed their minds about the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, determining it is not ready to survive on its own and will remain protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The rare beetle, unique to California’s Central Valley, was declared a federally protected “threatened” species in 1980. In the decades since, it has been the bane of developers and flood-control agencies, which have been required, sometimes at great expense, to protect habitat for the beetle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 proposed removing the beetle from the endangered species list, citing evidence that its population had recovered in many areas. But after a peer review by a panel of scientists, the agency announced Tuesday that evidence of the beetle’s rebound was not reliable and the species should remain protected.

“Their range wasn’t as large as we had thought,” said Robert Moler, a spokesman for the agency. “What we did find is that further study is needed to more accurately determine the (beetle’s) status.”

The decision means property owners and levee managers will get no relief from the expenses associated with protecting the beetle, with three exceptions: Kings, Kern and Tulare counties no longer will be considered part of the beetle’s population range. Developers in these counties will not be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before undertaking projects that may affect the beetle.

Elsewhere in the Central Valley, the beetle will remain a threatened species with all legal protections unchanged.

“I’m certain there will be disappointment withing the flood-control community,” said Mike Hardesty, president of the California Central Valley Flood Protection Association. “There was an expectation that there was a reasonable chance this problem could be at least downgraded.”

Protections mainly have involved preserving elderberry bushes, the beetle’s primary habitat. While the bushes are abundant in the Valley, the beetle is not. So land development projects that affect elderberry bushes often require extraordinary measures, including relocating the shrubs or creating new areas of protected habitat, even if the beetles themselves are not present on a project site.

Environmental groups previously urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue protecting the species, noting there is little evidence beetles have populated restoration areas.

“This is exactly how the process of peer review is supposed to work,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Moler said the Fish and Wildlife Service determined much of the available population record for the beetle was old and unreliable. For example, the beetles bore holes in elderberry branches, and these holes are often used to verify whether beetles are present in an area. However, further review revealed many of these bore holes may have been created by a different species, the California elderberry longhorn beetle, which is relatively abundant.