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Monday was a banner day for the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, one of the rarest insects in the world found only on scarce saline wetlands around Lincoln.

After years of study and soliciting scientific and public comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its "final rule" in the Federal Register, designating 1,110 acres of critical habitat for the insect. The designation takes effect June 5.

The number of acres is smaller than the 1,933 acres proposed in 2010, but the federal agency says it contains sufficient suitable habitat to support recovery of the species. The latest designation is the result of a settlement reached with conservation groups in 2011.

The land includes saline wetlands along Little Salt Creek, Rock Creek, Oak Creek and Haines Branch Creek in Lancaster County, said Bob Harms, a biologist with the federal's agency's field office in Grand Island.

The goal of the designation is to support at least six populations of the Salt Creek tiger beetle in the future. Only three small populations survive now on less than 35 acres.

Large areas already have been protected through various governmental partnerships, and efforts continue to boost the population, which in 2013 numbered only 365 beetles.

Harms was in Lincoln to oversee the release of 150 Salt Creek tiger beetle larvae on a rehabilitated wetland near the Arbor Lake Wildlife Management Area on North 27th Street. The larvae were raised in test-tube like environments over the winter at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and the Lincoln Children's Zoo.

Biologists and volunteers brought the larvae, which are the immature or juvenile stage of the insect, to the release site in styrofoam coolers packed with small containers similar to those used for salsa, fitting because Monday was Cinco de Mayo.

Mike Fritz, a natural heritage biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and UNL entomologist Steve Spomer painstakingly released each larva into a small burrow made by a rod in the ground. At times, a larva had to be slid into a burrow using a V-shaped piece of paper.

"I think it means there's hope to save the species. I'm amazed this day is here, and it's heartening," said Joel Sartore of Lincoln, a National Geographic photographer and self-proclaimed fan of the insect.

"This is as cool a story as any polar bear or rhino story you will hear. This is epic. This animal is small but mighty," said Sartore, who is photographing endangered species around the world.

Harms said he was "pleasantly surprised" to have so many larvae to release. During its first year, the program produced 50 larvae, but only nine survived to be released into the wild.

Volunteers with the Nebraska Master Naturalist program will monitor the burrows weekly to record among other things moisture and temperature of the soil.

The larvae were released in an area that was rehabilitated into suitable habitat for the Salt Creek tiger beetle, including muddy flats with brackish water coming out of the banks.

The Salt Creek tiger beetle is unique to the state's eastern saline wetlands which are found mostly north of Lincoln and south of Ceresco in Saunders County.

Habitat loss associated with urbanization and agricultural development has reduced the population of the insect, making it vulnerable to extinction.

After the 150 larvae are leased, biologists will bring in 25 more and release them in the same vicinity, Harms said. The Salt Creek tiger beetle was listed as an endangered species in 2005.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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