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'Extinct' Dragonfly Makes Comeback in Illinois, Frustrates Water Utility

Jul 19, 2015 12:48 AM EDT

(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Mike Ostrowski)

A dragonfly once thought to be extinct is now seeing reintroduction into the wilds of Illinois. And while that's great news for conservationists trying to preserve a natural beauty, it has become a thorn in the side of local water utility projects.

That's at least according to the Chicago Tribune and utility professionals, who report that the reintroduction of Hine's emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora hineana) into a forest preserve near Lockport, Illinois has led to new limitations on where utility engineers can dig public water wells.

According to the Associated Press (AP) only 20 of these incredibly rare insects, raised in captivity, will be released in all, but the hope is that they will swell the number of breeding pairs the region sees, right when it needs them. And to ensure these insects get to mate in peace, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and cooperating state engineers have even extended a "buffer zone" around the dragonfly's protected habitats - a decision not everyone is happy about.

"I don't see how a dragonfly on an island in the Des Plaines River stops us from digging for water throughout the entire city," alderman Darren Deskin recently complained to the Tribune.

Mayor Steve Streit expressed similar frustrations with the new restrictions, wondering aloud about where federal officials would stand "if it came between the dragonfly and people having access to drinking water."

The Mayor has even invited members of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) to attend a public meeting in Lockport, where they can explain their decision. (Scroll to read on...)

A pair of Hine's emerald dragonflies 'getting busy.'
(Photo : Dr. Paul Burton / FWS) A pair of Hine's emerald dragonflies 'getting busy.'

However Kristopher Lah, an endangered species coordinator at the FWS's Chicago Ecological Services Field Office explained that, as things stand, a mere 80 to 320 Hine's emerald larvae emerge as flying adults in Illinois every year. Experts know that only about 10 in every 1,000 eggs laid usually make it to adulthood, so the addition of these new, healthy, and lab-raised adults could significantly help ensure larvae numbers are bolstered in the next degeneration.

Still, some argue that all this effort simply isn't worth it. After all, by the mid-1900s,  development and changes in local water quality had effectively wiped the insects off the face of North America. Local ecosystems have since changed, for better or worse, to survive without these precision-flying predators.

It wasn't until 1988 that a specimen was rediscovered in the Des Plaines River Valley, where they maintain a small and struggling population. Similar isolated communities can be found in Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin - all of which, if destroyed, would have very little impact on the overall well-being of a region.

However, ecologist Mike Grimm of Nature Conservancy argues that we shouldn't only be saving species that are nationally important. He likens, the Hine's emerald dragonfly to the Mona Lisa.

"We could tear it down, burn it, and would civilization collapse? No... but it's something that we value because it's beautiful or it has some intrinsic value that we just want to protect, " he told the AP. "Some species, what is their value? A small [dragonfly] doesn't really have any economic value and probably could go extinct and we'd never even know it. But I think there's an obligation to our future generations of people that we try to preserve the Earth in at least as good a condition as we found it."

Want to know the steps you can take to protect this struggling species? Learn more here.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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