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Nebraska habitat estimate cut for endangered bug

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A federal agency has proposed a nearly 50 percent cut in the Nebraska land the agency says is needed to support the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month published a proposal in the Federal Register to designate 1,110 acres of saline wetlands as critical habitat. In 2010 the agency said more than 1,900 acres was needed, the Lincoln Journal Star said (http://bit.ly/11To2ye ).

The beetles live only in the rare saline wetlands on the north side of Lincoln and in neighboring Saunders County. Some of the land has already been protected under various governmental partnerships.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln expert who's studied the beetle was incensed by the wildlife service proposal to shrink the habitat space.

"It's ridiculous. I honestly think their intention is to drive that species to extinction so they don't have to deal with it," said Leon Higley, an applied ecologist at UNL.

Not so, said Bob Harms, a biologist with the agency's field office in Grand Island.

He said the revision is a result of a settlement between the agency and the Center for Native Ecosystems, Center for Biological Diversity and Xerces Society. The three conservation groups sued the agency in 2010, saying that not enough land was being set aside to help save the tiger beetle.

The agency has identified important features, including water and saline soil, that the insects needs to survive, Harms said.

Although the 1,110 acres is a smaller area than the previous designation, the agency said, there's enough habitat to support the insects' recovery as a species.

The beetle is considered one of the rarest insects in the United States and was listed as endangered in October 2005.

Before the listing, more than 90 percent of the insect's saline wetland habitat had been destroyed or severely degraded by encroaching development and farming.

In addition to the already protected habitats of Little Salt Creek and Rock Creek, the agency has added Oak Creek and Haines Branch, which have saline wetlands or degraded wetlands that can be restored.

The agency said the goal of the proposed designation is establishment of at least six separate populations of the insects.

As it stands, Harms said, the beetles can be found only on the bed of Little Salt Creek.

"If something catastrophic would occur, they would be all gone," he said.

But UNL's Higley disagreed.

"In my opinion, this is a dodge," Higley said. "Adding those streams might or might not be of value. But when you have numbers this low, they should be working frantically to preserve the existing population."

Only a few hundred beetles remain on less than 35 acres, experts say.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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