Kane County is not mincing words in articulating its position on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to designate 2,200 acres of dunes there as "critical habitat" for the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle.
"We're completely against it," Commissioner Dirk Clayson said this week.
Clayson said the county heard two to three weeks ago about the proposal to list the beetle as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act and designate up to 70 percent of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes as critical habitat.
Paul Abate, a supervisory biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Utah Field Office, said such a designation "identifies the geographic area and habitat that is essential for conservation and recovery of a species."
Such a designation doesn't necessarily prohibit any development or other man-made use, he said. It does mean that any use proposed for designated critical habitat would require evaluation of its impact on the protected species.
Asked if, in the case of the tiger beetle, a critical habitat designation would mean no more dune riding in the area, Abate said, "I don't think any of those decisions have been made."
But Clayson said the FWS "indicated to us that it would be closed to all vehicles."
"It will absolutely affect tourism recreation in our area," he said. "For Kane County, that's a pretty big issue."
The commissioner said Kane County officials are questioning the federal agency's data that indicate the tiger beetle's numbers are dwindling. "They admitted they changed how they collect samples," Clayson said, "and had not kept control numbers."
He said Kane County has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request so it can do its own analysis of the data.
Abate noted there is a parallel effort to protect the tiger beetle already taking place and involving the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources, state parks and Kane County to update a conservation agreement in place since 1997.
That agreement established two "conservation areas" among the dunes one of 207 acres in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park and another of 370 acres northeast of the park's boundaries.
Abate said the two conservation areas are already off-limits to off-road vehicles and have worked well. However, expansion of one or both of the areas will likely be necessary to fully protect the species, he said.
If the FWS can work with its partners to protect enough of the habitat to ensure survival of the species, Abate said, the proposed listing and designation could be withdrawn.
The proposed critical habitat area encompasses the two existing conservation areas and includes the habitat between them.
Clayson said county officials believe the conservation areas are already sufficiently protecting the beetles.
"We're certainly in favor of trying to protect a species and be responsible about that," Clayson said, "but the completely arbitrary decision to close down 70 percent of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes without any science whatsoever and any statistics to back it up is something that concerns us an awful lot."
Doug Young, president of the 100-member Utah ATV Association, said his group will be watching with interest what happens with the tiger beetle and the critical habitat designation.
"I've ridden there many times," Young said of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.
He said he understands the need to protect threatened species. "It's fun to play on the hills but if there's no wildlife to see, it doesn't make it nearly as fun."
But when it comes to protecting such species, he said, "sometimes I think the way they go about it is maybe overkill."
Abate said it may take up to a year to decide if the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle will be listed and the critical habitat designated.
The public can submit comments until Dec. 3 on the proposed listing of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle as a threatened species and designation of critical habitat.
Those wishing to submit comments can do so online at http://www.regulations.gov and search for Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2012-0053; or mail them to:
Public Comments Processing
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM
Arlington, VA 22203