The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently announced its decision to reclassify, or downlist, the American burying beetle (ABB) from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once found in 35 U.S. states, this black and orange beetle is now only present in nine and has been on the endangered species list since 1989. This USFWS ruling will be effective on Nov. 16, 2020.

The USFWS is also implementing a 4(d) rule for the ABB that prohibits an incidental take — any unintentional harm or killing — of the species in specific geographic areas that the three ABB populations occupy.

These federal changes require shifts in project surveys and mitigation efforts. A thorough understanding of the ABB populations and compliance requirements can keep projects moving forward without delay and can mitigate impacts to the habitats of these fascinating beetles known for their ability to recycle carcasses and return valuable nutrients to the soil.

New England and Northern Plains Populations of ABB

The ABB is found in and around Block Island, Rhode Island; and Nantucket, Massachusetts, as well as in the northern Plains of central Nebraska and southern parts of South Dakota. For both of these populations, incidental take is prohibited only in suitable habitat where the take is the result of soil disturbance. It’s helpful to break down these details to understand where an incidental take is authorized and prohibited:

  • Suitable habitat. Areas where suitable soils contain the appropriate abiotic elements (e.g., soil temperature, soil moisture, particle size) that are favorable for excavation and formation of ABB brood chambers and where appropriate carrion for reproduction is available.
  • Unfavorable habitat. Areas that are regularly tilled, land that has vegetation maintained at less than 8 inches through regular mowing, wetland areas with standing water or saturated soils, or urban areas with paved surfaces.
  • Soil disturbance. Movement or alteration of soil associated with modifying existing land use. Soil disturbance includes actions such as grading, filling, soil excavating or topsoil stripping. Soil disturbance also includes nonphysical alterations such as chemical treatment, including ground or soil sterilizers and pesticides that would make the habitat unsuitable.

Presence/absence surveys for the ABB will likely be required for projects that occur within range of these habitats and that would result in soil disturbance within a suitable habitat for the ABB as defined by the USFWS.

Southern Plains Population of ABB

The USFWS has identified conservation lands where ABB populations will be protected within the southern Plains population region as lands within the existing boundaries of Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma’s McAlester Army Ammunition Plant and Camp Gruber/Cherokee Wildlife Management Area. Additionally, the Cherokee Nation has designated an area of land to protect the ABB at the tribe’s 800-acre Sallisaw Creek Park in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma — land also considered conservation land by the USFWS.

Within these conservation lands, activities that result in the take of the ABB are prohibited unless the activities are compliant with USFWS-approved conservation plans. For example, on conservation lands managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, certain activities that result in incidental take are not prohibited if those activities are in compliance with a USFWS-approved integrated natural resources management plan.

Outside of defined conservation lands, incidental take is not prohibited; that’s because land development is currently thought be a low risk to the southern Plains population, according to the USFWS. Presence/absence surveys for the ABB would likely not be required for projects outside of the defined conservation lands within the southern Plains populations.


Every project demands a detailed approach to developing conservation plans and implementing the protective measures needed to mitigate potential impacts to environmental resources.


Brian Roh is a threatened and endangered species specialist, wetland scientist and aquatic ecologist at Burns & McDonnell. He has a wide range of experience in wildlife species identification and habitat assessments.