ANNAPOLIS — Homes near cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay are endangered by erosion, with several homes, a hot tub, and a septic system close to teetering over the edges.
But just below the edge, the cliff faces are inhabited by endangered beetles, legally limiting residents’ options in their battle to live next to the bay without falling into it.
It comes down to beetle homes vs. human homes — and the beetles’ options have been constrained by evolution.
Actions that might reduce cliff erosion run up against federal and state endangered species acts that prohibit killing the beetle even indirectly by interfering with its habitat.
The federal law was amended in 1996 to allow the possibility of some habitat destruction in extreme cases. Now the Maryland House of Delegates has passed a bill to allow consideration of exceptions to the original state endangered species act.
“We lost 25 feet (of frontage) over 10 months before and after Hurricane Isabel” in September 2003, said Phyllis K. Bonfield, who lives in Chesapeake Ranch Estates in Lusby. “Then we had a sinkhole develop 20 feet deep and 25 feet across, only 12 feet from our deck.”
Looking out from that deck a year ago, a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers asked Marcia Seifert, who shares the house with Bonfield, “What idiot would have bought this?”
“This is my retirement home,” Seifert said. “We’re trying to save it.”
At issue is the habitat of the half-inch-long bronze and cream-striped Puritan Tiger Beetle, Cicindela puritana. It is found in limited numbers in only about 20 locations, all in the northeastern United States.
Hatching from eggs laid on sandy-clay cliffs, the larva burrow into the cliffs where they live on small organisms, growing for two years until emerging as adults. Then they voraciously eat other insects (hence “tiger”), mate and lay their eggs.
Last year, Department of Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks viewed the area by boat and said, “We have to do something to help these people,” said Tony Vajda, neighbor of Bonfield and Seifert, who has been organizing Chesapeake Ranch Estates and other homeowners at risk.
But under the current Maryland Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act, most actions contemplated by human homeowners put beetle housing at risk. Its larvae can only burrow into and grow in cliff faces newly exposed by natural erosion.
“If you stabilize the beach with bulkheads, or plant vegetation to reduce erosion, you lose habitat,” said C. Barry Knisley, beetle expert and biology professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
“I’d rather this beetle was extinct rather than endangered,” said Delegate Richard A. Sossi, R-Queen Anne’s. “The thing does no good.” By boring into cliffs, “the stupid beetle’s endangering its own habitat,” Sossi said.
“The pounding of water on cliffs, during a storm or hurricane,” is the primary cause of cliff erosion, which will be aggravated over time by sea-level rise, said Scott Philips, U.S. Geological Survey Chesapeake Bay coordinator. Sea levels are rising as global warming causes polar ice caps to melt.
“Rain, wind on the face of the eroding bank, storm water collecting somewhere away from the shoreline that’s directed towards and dumped over the (cliff edge) causing ravines and gullies, impervious areas that channel water, septic systems introducing water” are secondary contributors to erosion, according to Len Cassanova, director of the DNR shore erosion control program.
Winter freeze and thaw cycles also contribute, according to Philips.
“Natural forces,” said Cassanova, “but if we’re allowed to build in certain areas we feel the impact.”
The bill, introduced by Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, has passed the House and will be heard in the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee April 8.
Even if the bill passes the Senate and becomes law, there is no guarantee that landowners will get the remedy they seek, said Paul A. Peditto, director of DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service.
“Can we get to the landowners’ desired outcome while staying within (the) science of management of the species?” — that is, making sure the beetle gets what it needs for long-term species survival, asked Peditto.
There are “several highly unpredictable inputs to the equation dealt us by Mother Nature,” including hurricanes rearranging the entire landscape literally and figuratively,” he said.
But the new law would at least allow DNR to consider possible options for saving homes otherwise doomed to slide into the bay.
-30- CNS 3-31-05