Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of the NET News QUEST Nebraska project, a multimedia series exploring Nebraska science, environment and nature.
It has the feel of a round-up on the ranch. Armed with a butterfly net and keen pairs of eyes, a group of scientists from federal and state agencies and the Omaha and Lincoln zoos are on the hunt for one of the world's most endangered species.
"Get him?" one asks.
"No, I got a fly," another responds.
The group isn't in some isolated location - it's just a couple of miles north of busy Interstate 80 at the 27th Street exit to Lincoln. As the group sloshes along the banks of Little Salt Creek, it looks for Salt Creek Tiger Beetles. Bob Harms, a biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service , said that it's part of a recovery project to save a species that numbers fewer than 500.
Watch a video about the salt Creek tiger beetle
Salt Creek tiger beetle
"This site's important because it has the right kind of habitat," Harms said. "It has salt flats along the banks. And it has little islands out in the middle of the steam and those little Salt Creek tiger beetles move from island to island ...
"They're predators," Harms continued. "And so they're always in search of food, and the movement corridors are very important to them. The salt flats or the salt seeps that are along here are important for breeding by Salt Creek tiger beetles. The females cue in on that salt ... that's where they actually lay their eggs, so (it's) a very unique kind of habitat."
In fact, he said it can only be found in Lancaster County and the southern edge of Sanders County. And over the last 50 years, as much as 90 percent of the saline habitat has been lost or degraded. That's impacted Salt Creek tiger beetle numbers enough that it was listed as an endangered species in 2005. After successfully catching 30 male and female pairs of beetles, the recovery project next takes them to the Omaha and Lincoln zoos for breeding and then rearing the larvae. Kay Klatt is the butterfly and insect pavilion supervisor at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.
"Each female can lay 50, 75, 100 eggs. So if I have 15 females, I could have a lot of eggs here from her. Hopefully, we could have several hundred. I'm hoping," she said. "I think if you think about it, just if we can get just a small percentage is better than nothing at all. We're trying. We're getting a little bit, you know, ten, 20, 100 more than what it was before. Every little bit helps. But we're gonna have more than that, I'm confident."
John Chapo with Lincoln's Children's Zoo said conservation is one of the main functions of zoos, and it doesn't take an exotic creature from a far-away place - it can happen locally.
"I mean, we're talking critical numbers," Chapo said. "We're talking small, critical areas. We're talking reduction of numbers over the years. And so we're excited to have some, but it's like, oh my lord, how close are we to extinction?"
"So it's a bittersweet, by all means, situation," Chapo continued. "We're very concerned. Any success is success and we're gonna hold onto it. And we're gonna be excited for that success. But we have to work for a much larger success."
The Lincoln Children's Zoo, along with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had a trial run of sorts on the recovery project.
"Late in 2010, we actually acquired some larvae from the University for emerging into nymphs," Chapo said, "and we retained them, took care of them, and we're very excited - this spring, then, we were able to take some nymphs that actually merged here at the Lincoln Children's Zoo, and took them up to their natural habitat for release, for reintroduction.
"It's really important, because we want to show the kids, we want to educate Lincoln, that we do have a critically-endangered species right here," he continued. "And that our own actions and what we do can actually save a species from extinction. It's our endangered species. And it's really important that we give the children the opportunity to learn about them as they come to the Lincoln Children's Zoo and discover that what they do here in Lincoln can help save the species from extinction. So it's extra-critical that we really involve our community, educate our community, give them hands-on knowledge and minds-on knowledge. I mean you can explain to them about endangered whales in the ocean or gorillas up in the mountains and it's out there. But they can just drive down the road on their way home after shopping and see the critical habitat of this very, very endangered species and go It's here, Mom. It's here, Dad. So we want them to really own that and know that every child can be a steward of an endangered species. Especially right here in Lincoln, Nebraska."
Not everyone thinks the same way. Doug Nagel is one of numerous farmers from northern Lancaster County with productive farm ground near the unique saline wetland habitat. He's been dealing with how saving Salt Creek Tiger Beetles might affect his livelihood for about a decade.
"I think the same way as 99 per cent of the population does that it's absolutely crazy to try and save a beetle, 200 of 'em, and sacrifice all this crop ground and all this tax revenue and all the jobs that might have been created from it for who knows what, you know. But to me, I think there's a lot of lawyers out there that seem to be willing to sue the government because that's what the Endangered Species Act enables them to do. I'm not saying, do with the Endangered Species Act. But let's kind of pare it down a little bit and let's just say, hey this is a sub-species of a tiger beetle, which there are thousands of tiger beetles in this world. Why do we need to save that? It just makes no sense to me. So to me, the Endangered Species Act is the driving force on all this."
Mike DeKalb is Lancaster County Planner. He says the tiger beetle issue has been about finding the right mix of farming interests and commercial and residential development in an area that's rapidly growing.
"Oh that's the total fun of being a planner. What you're trying to do is pull all the pieces together, get your best piece of knowledge together, get the different parties talking to each other so you can understand the issues. And then try to find the best balance you can. And with the issue at this particular point in time, we're still sort of in a waiting mode. I mean we've got critical habitat. We know primarily where Little Salt tiger beetle is living. But we don't know yet the science of what impacts 'em and how. For example, we know they're attracted to light. We know they're attracted in different ways to different light wave lengths. We know they're only out for about a month, six weeks out of the year. So then the issue is could we develop there if we put up a bunch of streets lights? Is it gonna impact em if we have ball diamonds in the area, would it impact em or not? So you try and find a balance of what you conserve for commercial development and residential development and to go with the city on the one hand, the human interests, and of course, the farm community as well is another human interest. And try and balance that with the environmental impact and perhaps federal regulations on the other side that you try and meet the best balance you can with the knowledge that you have. "
That balance led to setting aside about 2000 acres of critical saline habitat and 500 foot buffers adjacent to them. The Comprehensive Growth Plan for Lancaster County has no growth through 2040 north of I 80 on 27th street. That works for Nagel, even though some of the wetlands are backing up and encroaching on some of the land he farms. But recently, three conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service that the 2000 acres isn't enough. They've got more like 36,000 acres in mind. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has until 2013 to re-evaluate and make a new recommendation. Nagel has a visual aid to make his point, spreading sunflower seeds on a piece of card board that's about 20 square feet in size.
"Let me put a perspective on the beetle. The sunflower seeds that I have here in this coffee can, I've counted out two hundred of 'em. And this is representative of the beetle and they're about the same size and everything else, but if I sprinkle that out on my cardboard here, I've counted out two hundred sunflower seeds here to represent the tiger beetle and for me, I think the preliminary law that they come out with, with the two thousand acres was enough to hold that many beetles. The 36 thousand acres taking up the whole watershed as you see behind us we got some great crops growing this year. We got ample rain. I just don't see giving that up for that little amount of beetles and bugs or whatever else there."
Meanwhile, increasing the number of beetles is important for scientists like Harms with the Fish and Wildlife Service because the efforts can save the disappearing habitats too.
"The Salt Creek tiger beetle is an important creature and here's why. For us, what we do is we are tasked with protecting this federally-endangered species and this is a key thing here, the ecosystems on which they depend. So just coming and protecting Salt Creek tiger beetles doesn't get you there. You have to also protect the habitat. Now what's the big deal about the habitat? The answer is this. This little Salt Creek area that's along here, it's important to have habitat for the Salt Creek tiger beetle, but really this is a creature of saline wetlands. Saline wetlands play a critically important role in this valley. They provide some important functions to people like flood control, water quality, aesthetics, recreation. So if we protect the Salt Creek tiger beetle and the eco-systems on which it depends, then we also provide some good benefits to the public here as well, so that's what the big deal is. It's not just the tiger beetle, but its saline wetland habitats as well.
A recovery project of this size hasn't been tried before with Salt Creek Tiger Beetles. Those working on it, hope that after spending a year as larvae in the Omaha and Lincoln zoos, nymphs, or young beetles will be returned to northern Lancaster County creating new communities of Salt Creek tiger beetles. Scientists hope a more diverse population will make it a larger one too.