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FIRST-PERSON: The $1 million tiger beetle

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ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–I have a drainage issue on my property that needs to be addressed. When rainfall is heavy, water runoff from the adjacent golf course creates a river that runs through the east side of my one acre lot. As a result, a portion of my yard is eroding at an accelerated rate.

I have plans to install a French-drain system to correct the problem. Thankfully, there are no animals or plants protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the area, at least none I’m aware of, or the federal government could put a halt to my home improvement efforts.

While my situation is minor, it is similar to one faced by homeowners in Maryland. The major difference is that these folks are in danger of losing their homes because they have a bug — the Puritan tiger beetle to be exact — dwelling near their property. This particular insect is protected by the ESA.

Signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon, the ESA currently has 574 animal species in the U.S. and 749 plant species (also in the U.S.) listed as threatened or endangered.

If you intentionally, or even accidently, kill an animal or destroy a plant listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA you could face a hefty fine and even jail time. Disturb or significantly alter habitat that is deemed critical to the survival of an animal or plant on the list and you will face a huge fine.

The homeowners of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, a bayside subdivision located in southern Maryland outside of Lusby, are watching their properties disappear into the Chesapeake Bay due to erosion. Several homes are threatened and one child in the 1990s was killed in a landslide.

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The federal government has blocked any attempt by the Maryland property owners to stop the damage because of fears it would disturb the habitat of the Puritan tiger beetle. More than 90 homes located in and around the subdivision are affected by the presence of the ESA protected bugs. The homes likely would be worth around $1 million each if protected properly.

A biologist told The Washington Post there are an estimated 5,000 Puritan tiger beetles on the planet, with 4,500 of them living in Maryland. One land owner said that only about 300 beetles dwell in the Chesapeake Ranch Estates area.

“We try as best as we can to accommodate the wishes of the landowner, but we can’t do it at the expense of an endangered species,” Glen Therres a biologist who heads the endangered-species program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told The Post.

Because of the small number of beetles in the area, homeowners have suggested the government relocate the bugs to another area. To date, the government has done nothing except prevent property owners from protecting and improving their land.

Homeowner William Carmichael has been trying for nearly 20 years to get the government to allow him to build a stone wall “to stabilize the slope,” The Post reported. His house, once 60 feet from the cliff’s edge, now is 20 feet away. His hot tub went over the edge last year.

“It’s no longer just slowly going down. Now it’s going in chunks. Within a year or two, you’ll be back taking pictures of a house down there,” he told the newspaper.

When 300 bugs take precedent over the rights of nearly 100 families, something is wrong. If you think the situation with landowners in Maryland is extreme, consider the following:

— In 2001, environmental groups used the ESA to successfully block more than 1,400 Southern Oregon farmers from using water from Klamath Lake to irrigate their fields. The groups argued that taking water from the lake would put a particular bottom-feeding “sucker-fish” at risk. A federal judge in San Francisco agreed. As a result, many farmers in the Klamath Basin lost everything.

— In 2006, a federal judge in Little Rock, Ark., stopped construction on a $320 million irrigation project because it might disturb the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker which may or may not even exist. The bird in question was labeled extinct decades ago, but a 2004 video captured a woodpecker that some believed to be the ivory-billed variety. Hundreds of volunteers traipsed through the woods but could not verify the bird’s existence. In December 2009 a federal judge reversed the original ruling and allowed the irrigation project to move forward. The presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker has yet to be confirmed.

Until the Endangered Species Act is retooled, 300 beetles can trump any and all human interest — especially property rights — whenever one of the 1,000-plus endangered or threatened animals or plants intersects with human beings.
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Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.