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Walmart Developer Wants Permit to Kill Endangered Insect

The Delhi Sands flower loving fly | Photo: Nelson Marjory, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An Inland Empire retail plaza developer may receive permission from the federal government to kill an endangered fly in exchange for preserving some of the insect's remaining habitat.

In a notice to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Woodland Hills-based retail developer NewMark Merrill has applied for a permit that would allow the company to kill or injure federally Endangered Delhi Sands flower loving flies on a proposed Walmart expansion in Rialto.

According to USFWS, the development would alter just under two and a half acres of marginal habitat rarely used by the fly. In exchange for a five year incidental take permit, NewMark Merrill would preserve two acres of what USFWS deems higher quality fly habitat in the vicinity.

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The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly (Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis) is the only fly on the Endangered Species list. An inch long with brown, orange, and black markings, the adults flies emerge from July through September to feed and mate. They require open expanses of sandy soil in which to lay their eggs, and thus are restricted to the Delhi Sands soil formation from which it takes its name.

The fly once made do with about 40 square miles of habitat in the northwestern Inland Empire. That habitat has since been converted into the swath of towns running from Ontario to Colton, and the fly has only about 40 acres of Delhi Sands soils left.

Ever since the fly was listed as Endangered in 1993, it's been cited by conservative activists who claim the Endangered Species Act has gone too far, protecting insects at the expense of a vibrant economy. The fly was a frequent Republican talking point during the anti-environmental 104th Congress in the mid-90s, with many observers characterizing the species as a potential disease vector. (As the fly only eats nectar as opposed to sucking blood or eating organic waste, catching a disease from one is about as likely as catching a disease from a Monarch butterfly.)

The listing wasn't just about the fly itself, of course. UC Riverside biologist Greg Ballmer, who wrote the petition that brought about the fly's emergency listing in 1993, points out that at least half a dozen other insects that are also restricted to the Delhi Sands, and likely in every bit as much trouble with at least 97 percent of their habitat gone. That makes the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly what conservationists call an "umbrella species." Protecting the fly protects the other species that also rely on the same habitat.

In the case of the proposed Rialto Walmart, USFWS says that the land that would be developed is "low-quality habitat," with earlier surveys finding just one male fly on the property. By contrast, according to USFWS, the land NewMark Merrill is offering to preserve in the Colton Dunes Conservation Bank is "high-quality habitat occupied by the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly which is actively managed for the subspecies and is contiguous to other conservation lands."

The land in the Conservation Bank is owned by the Vulcan Materials Corporation, which -- with an eye toward making the Endangered Species Act profitable -- bought 130 acres of prime Delhi Sands habitat shortly after the fly was listed, and set up an arrangement with USFWS to sell "fly habitat credits" to Inland Empire developers. In 2008, the rumored price per acre of fly habitat was as high as $150,000.

Given the opportunity to add to the fly's protected habitat, says the agency, it's inclined to grant NewMark Merrill that five-year incidental take permit after it sees the details of the company's proposed Habitat Conservation Plan to protect those two higher-quality acres.

Despite the agency's apparent willingness to let the developer go ahead, we at ReWild are wondering if we detect a note of frustrated sarcasm from a USFWS staff person in one passage in the Federal Register announcement discussing the different alternatives NewMark Merrill provided in its proposed Habitat Conservation Plan for the Walmart expansion:

The applicant's proposed HCP identifies a no-action alternative that would not result in incidental take of Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.However, the no-action alternative would not contribute to the applicant's plans for expanding Walmart's retail opportunities in the Rialto area.

USFWS is suggesting that the risk of NewMark Merrill's plan to the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly is low enough that it can avoid engaging in an extensive Environmental Impact Statement process, though the agency says it will reconsider if enough people complain.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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