Center for Biological Diversity sues feds to protect Florida Tiger Beetle near Zoo Miami

Impatient with a lack of action by a federal agency in preserving an endangered insect, an environmental group sued last month to spur the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move forward with promised protections. 

The insect in question is the Miami tiger beetle, a rare species found in a specific area in Miami-Dade, the Richmond Pine Rocklands, surrounding Zoo Miami and found between SW 137th and 117th Avenues. 

Since 2007, the rocklands have been only one of two major habitats for the beetle. Following its rediscovery, both the beetle and its habitat have come under threat from development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the beetle endangered in 2016 and finally proposed the land be considered a “critical habitat” but it has yet to take any further action. 

Despite the Service’s change in the beetle’s conservation status, much of its habitat is available for development, environmental organizations say. 

“The biggest challenges to preserving the Miami tiger beetle are the looming threats of sea-level rise and development within Miami-Dade County,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center has been at the head of the movement towards the preservation of the beetle since 2014 when it filed an initial petition to list it as an endangered species. 

Also involved in the suit: Dennis Olle, president of the Miami Blue chapter of the North America Butterfly Association, as well as Lauren Jonatis, president of the Tropical Audubon Society.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson said the agency could not discuss pending litigation.

According to Whitlock, the Service, by failing to provide any further protection for the beetle, is in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. The Service missed its own deadlines to declare it endangered as well as the rocklands as a critical habitat following its 2017 proposal, the lawsuit says.

 “Our lawsuit is aimed to force the Service to quickly remedy these violations and provide the beetle with the life-sustaining protections it needs,” Whitlock said.

“I would say that it is very important that the lawsuit is successful for the conservation of the Miami tiger beetle…When the Service designates critical habitat, it will assist in the recovery of the species. It is unfortunate that we have to resort to litigation to force the Service to do its statutory duty,” said Jonatis.

While most of the habitat for the beetle remains undeveloped, a large portion has become  home to a Walmart Supercenter, RaceTrac gas station and various restaurants. With the recent development of the Miami Wilds, a water park adjacent to Zoo Miami, the beetle now faces even greater threats. 

Jonatis said designating a critical habitat can help preserve a species, but it is no guarantee.

“Yes, animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it,” she said.

“We plan to stay continuously involved with the Miami tiger beetle’s recovery efforts. While we expect this lawsuit to be successful, the beetle will need continued support from conservationists across the state. Unfortunately, the beetle is reliant on an incredibly imperiled ecosystem and Miami-Dade County is developing at a rapid pace,” Whitlock said.

Luca Fornoni is a senior at FIU and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Digital Journalism. He mainly enjoys spending time with his family and friends as much as possible as well as watching and discussing movies.