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SALT LAKE CITY — A big fight over a little beetle is brewing in Kane County. In one corner sits county government and tourism leaders. In the other sits a tiny beetle and its allies.
The fight is over one of Utah's unique scenic attractions, The Coral Pink Sand Dunes, as well as one of the state's most obscure residents, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle.
Back as the 1990's, federal protection began for the tiger beetle. Local officials now are riled up by plans to increase protection.
"We don't feel like it's ever been about the beetle," said Dirk Clayson, Kane County Commissioner. "It's been about shutting down ATV use and utilizing the beetle as a tool to do that."
The colorful dunes are an ATV favorite. But they're also the only home for this colorful, half-inch beetle. Off-Road vehicles could easily crush the insect.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that ATVs crush vegetation and habitat. Scientists believe just over 1,000 beetles are left. The agency is proposing to list it as a threatened species and declare critical habitat.
"(Conservationists want to) provide additional protection to the species, but also still allow human use in the area." said Paul Abate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "And also allow for off-road-vehicle use."
A compromise years ago protected one-sixth of the dunes. The new proposal is to protect about two-thirds of the dunes.
"That is the habitat that we feel is necessary to protect the species and for it to survive out into the future," Abate said.
Kane County officials don't buy the basic premise.
"We have an activity, they come out and see dead beetles, and they say, ‘Wow, the beetles were killed by the disturbance and activity on the dunes,'" said Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton. "I don't think that's legitimate."
The federal agency says ATV use wouldn't necessarily be banned in the habitat. Decisions about actual restrictions will come late.
"The remainder of the state park and BLM lands there would still be open to off-road vehicles," Abate said.
Regardless, County Commissioners aren't buying the argument for conservation.
"The beetle has a short life, it's going to die anyway," Heaton said. "Maybe it was because of the activity, but it probably wasn't."
It will take about a year to decide if the tiger beetle will be listed and critical habitat designated. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment the next two months.