Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 4, 2018

Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495,

Zinke Sued for Refusing to Release Documents on Efforts to Strip Protection From American Burying Beetle

Oil, Gas Industry Colluding With Trump Administration to Strip Rare, Striking Beetle of Protection, Clear Path for Oil, Gas

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sued Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to release public documents about the agency’s move toward stripping Endangered Species Act protections from the American burying beetle. Documents already obtained by the Center show interference in science and collusion between the administration and the oil and gas industry in their efforts to remove protection for the beetle.

The oil and gas industry has for years tried to end protections for the highly endangered beetle, which has declined by more than 90 percent and today lives in a few isolated populations. The Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Zinke’s office about the beetle on Feb. 27, 2018. To date the agency has failed to release detailed records related to the request.

“We have serious concerns Secretary Zinke is trying to manipulate science and strip the American burying beetle of protections simply to please the oil and gas industry,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “This work is going on behind closed doors at Zinke’s Interior Department. The public has every right to know how this is being carried out, and that’s why we’re suing.”

The Center learned that the agency may be seeking to strip the beetle of protections through a scientist who was asked to be on the review team but was later kicked off for asking questions about the methods and conclusions of the review. The scientist’s experience on the review team is detailed in a letter sent to the agency expressing alarm about the use of “unsound science and poor ethics.”

“This letter raises serious alarm bells about the use of science in Ryan Zinke’s Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Greenwald. “It’s not a stretch to assume that a climate-denier like Zinke won’t give a lick about scientific integrity when it comes to a species like the American burying beetle.”

The review of the beetle’s status was prompted by a 2015 petition to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the beetle from the Independent Petroleum Association of America and others in order to clear hurdles to oil and gas development in Oklahoma, one of the last strongholds for these striking orange and black beetles. 

Concerns that the administration is moving to strip the beetle of protection are heightened by emails obtained by the organization Documented Investigations, showing the IPAA had meetings focused on the beetle with Vincent DeVito, who was head of Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts and was then appointed to be a special counselor on energy policy by Zinke. DeVito has referred to his position as “the office of energy dominance” and took credit for delaying protection of another species, the Texas hornshell, on behalf of the IPAA.  He recently resigned his position, but concerns about interference in science at the Department of Interior remain. 

The status of the beetle is being assessed using a new process, referred to as a “species status assessment,” or SSA. The process itself has come under controversy. In 2017 acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Greg Sheehan issued a memo requiring inclusion of state representatives on SSA teams. Since states like Idaho or Wyoming often oppose protections for endangered species, such a move clearly interjects politics into what should be a purely scientific inquiry. 

The SSA process also takes decisions about protections for endangered species out of the hands of scientists and puts them into the hands of politically motivated bureaucrats, which is exactly what has happened in the case of the beetle. These concerns led the Center to also seek documents related to the new process in today’s lawsuit and file a notice of intent to sue over the agency’s failure to provide notice and comment on the new process.

The beetle once occurred across the eastern half of the United States and parts of Canada, but today is reduced to a small number of isolated populations in states including Oklahoma and Nebraska, where it faces ongoing threats from oil and gas and agricultural development. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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