GAO Report Requested By Senator Lankford Casts Doubt on American Burying Beetle Program

WASHINGTON, DC – The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released an extensive report, requested by Senator James Lankford (R-OK), on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s conservation efforts to protect the American burying beetle. The report proves that the FWS does not adequately apply federal financial control standards for its American burying beetle mitigation efforts in the United States.  

“Years ago, to protect the American burying beetle population, the Fish and Wildlife Service started requiring land developers in Oklahoma and other states to invest in Conservation Banks, commonly known as beetle farms,” said Lankford. “But in the past few years, the cost of Conservation Banks has skyrocketed, so the Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed ‘In-Lieu’ fee payments to third party conservation organizations. I requested a GAO study of the integrity of the In-Lieu payment systems and the management of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s American burying beetle mitigation efforts required by the Endangered Species Act. I am thankful to the GAO for conducting this extensive audit in a timely fashion for my subcommittee.”

The GAO report found that for the In-Lieu payment mitigation option, the FWS records contained “missing data and other errors” which led GAO to determine that the data was “not sufficiently reliable for our purposes.” GAO also determined that some In-Lieu mitigation programs had taken payments, but had spent no money for mitigation projects to date. Other In-Lieu programs had simply purchased land near existing Conservation Banks, but had done no specific mitigation work for the American burying beetle.  

Lankford continued, “This GAO investigation reinforces the need for more rigorous oversight of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the mitigation programs managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. I also remain concerned about the rigor of scientific information used to continue to list the American burying beetle on the endangered species list. In states like mine with high beetle populations, the endangered species listing creates real economic problems. The American burying beetle population continues to rise, and research demonstrates that the burying beetle is a ‘habitat generalist’ capable of adapting in many habitats. The listing of the American burying beetle unnecessarily places burdensome land-use restrictions to build roads, water resources, and energy infrastructure in many of our communities. It is time to move past beetle farms and In-Lieu payments and recognize that the growing beetle population demands review, and the rapid delisting of the beetle.”

The American burying beetle is a large scavenger insect that the FWS listed as endangered in 1989 under the Endangered Species Act. This was done when declining populations were found across America, but most notably in Oklahoma and Rhode Island. The FWS uses various strategies to address potential adverse impacts on protected species from construction and other projects. In some cases, the FWS has required project proponents to take specific steps to avoid, minimize, or compensate for a project’s potential impacts on the American burying beetle or its habitat. When these proponents make financial contributions to compensate for the impacts of these projects, the FWS generally refers to it as compensatory mitigation. 

 In May, Senator Lankford asked the FWS to remove the burying beetle from the endangered species list. Lankford believes the reasoning and data behind the listing is flawed, and therefore supports the case for delisting the beetle.

GAO Report Highlights

  • The FWS did not adequately adhere to its own federal internal control standards for the American Burying Beetle Conservation Fund.
  • This report raises concerns regarding the financial management and accounting of similar conservation funds established nationwide. 
  • The FWS is limited in its ability to evaluate whether In-Lieu fee programs are an effective strategy for conservation.
  • The FWS tracks key information about the conservation banks it approves, such as the location and credits available, but it does not track In-Lieu fee programs. 
  • The FWS has identified system modifications that are needed to the US Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory In-Lieu fee & Bank Tracking System (RIBITS) database to track In-Lieu fee programs, but it has not fully implemented its plan to make these modifications and improve monitoring and oversight of its In-Lieu fee programs. 

Agency Response to GAO Report:

  • The FWS commits to better account for the funds it collects from private entities for mitigation efforts. 
  • The FWS incorrectly billed the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for $10,271 in March 2012 and as a result of the GAO audit, FWS reimbursed ODOT $10,271 in May 2016.
  • The FWS will establish a timetable with milestones for modifying the Regulatory In-Lieu Fee & Bank Tracking System (RIBITS) to incorporate the FWS In-Lieu fee program information. 
  • In February 2016, the FWS signed an interagency agreement, which will be in effect for 5 years, with the US Army Corps of Engineers to, among other things, modify its RIBITS database so the FWS can track all In-Lieu fee programs across regions and field offices. 
  • According to an FWS official, although making modifications in RIBITS to track In-Lieu fee programs is an identified need, the agency has not obligated funds for these modifications and does not have a timeline for doing so. As a result, it is not clear when the FWS will be able to use the RIBITS database to track its In-Lieu fee programs.