Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle Cicindela albissima
ESA status: proposed for listing
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah is a unique place; it is the only major sand dune field in the Colorado Plateau, and true to its name is a rolling expanse of pinkish dunes. Within those dunes prowls a tiny predator: the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, found nowhere else on earth. This insect has a striking appearance with its pinkish-white wing cases, metallic green head and accents, huge eyes, and legs covered with white hairs. Like other tiger beetle species, Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetles have large, powerful mandibles with which they attack and eat prey, generally other insects. At night they bury themselves in the sand dunes from which they get their name.
The dunes that this tiger beetle inhabits cover 3,500 acres, of which 2,000 acres is within Coral Pink Sand Dunes (CPSD) State Park. The remaining 1,500 acres are on adjacent Bureau of Land Management land. The tiger beetle occurs consistently in only two populations, which occupy a total area of only about 500 acres in size. The northern population may not be self-sustaining, instead relying on dispersal from the central population.
Drought is one of the major threats to this rare beetle; rainfall is one of the primary factors controlling the beetle’s population size, which tends to fluctuate dramatically from year to year. Drought sucks the moisture from the soil, reducing the size of the beetle’s already limited habitat as well as reducing the populations of their prey insects. Climate change may exacerbate the impacts of drought in years to come. It would likely help the beetle survive the coming years if its whole range was protected, so that its population could freely expand and move from place to place along with the movement of the dunes, which are constantly shifting in unpredictable ways. But this is not the case.
Though core areas of tiger beetle habitat have been closed to ORVs since 1997 (207 acres within the CPSD State Park and 370 acres on BLM land), ORV use still occurs in 52 percent of occupied CPSD tiger beetle habitat in the central population in the State Park, as well as in the dispersal corridor between the two populations. For the small northern population, enforcement of protections on BLM land is minimal and relies mainly on voluntary compliance. ORVs, aside from crushing adult beetles, can damage vegetation, reducing the beetle’s prey base and drying out their habitats even further. During years when their population is small, the beetles concentrate in the protected area in CPSD State Park. In years when beetle numbers are exceptionally high, a greater percentage of them are found outside the conservation areas where they are vulnerable to harm from ORVs.
ORV use has a history of reducing or eliminating tiger beetle populations; victims have included Northeastern Beach tiger beetle populations in several locations, a portion of the White Beach tiger beetle population in Maryland, and the hairy-necked tiger beetle, Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle, and St. Anthony Dune tiger beetle populations in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Fortunately for the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the ongoing threats to the species by proposing to list it as “threatened” and designating 2,276 acres of dunes in CPSD State Park (767 ac) and on BLM land (1,508 ac) as critical habitat. We will continue to advocate for this tiny, fierce creature until it is assured a safe haven.
Watch a tiger beetle eating an insect.
ORV tracks at CPSD State Park. The stakes at the upper left indicate the boundary of the conservation area. © Chris Wirth.
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photo and video credit: © Chris Wirth, cicindela.wordpress.com, all rights reserved.