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Saint Louis Zoo gets approval to reintroduce American burying beetle

The American burying beetle.
(via Saint Louis Zoo)
The American burying beetle.

The American burying beetle is coming back – more than three decades since it was last spotted in Missouri.

The Saint Louis Zoo and the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday that they have gotten approval to reintroduce the beetle at the Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie in southwest Missouri. Up to 150 breeding pairs will be placed in underground with dead animals for food - the process starts in June.

The beetles were once found in 35 states and into southern Canada, but by 1989, the only known wild population was in Rhode Island.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Scott Hamilton says scientists don't know the reasons behind the beetle's rapid decline, so there are no guarantees the reintroduced beetles will survive.

"The most important thing is, we need to try," Hamilton said. "And this is a common problem when working with endangered species. You have so many variables out in the landscape, it's hard to know exactly what's most important until you're doing some of these field studies."

Hamilton says success is defined as a stable population of 1,000 or more insects. The Zoo, which is breeding the beetles at its Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation, will provide about 600 beetles a year over five years. About 300 will be introduced in June.

Though the beetle is on the endangered species list, Hamilton and others say landowners around the Wa'Kon-Tah Prairie can "keep on doing what they're doing."

The beetles' diet of dead animals means their presence will probably reduce the number of flies and rats in the reintroduction area, said Bob Merz, who directs the beetle conservation center. But some impacts just won’t be known until the bugs have a chance to establish a population.

"The whole habitat changes when wolves were brought up [to Yellowstone]," Merz said. "New species came back.  For some of it we may see the impact later on down the road if things go well."

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.