The Obama administration announced Wednesday it is providing $2.4 million to protect endangered Puritan beetles living in cliffs overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

The land acquired in Calvert and Cecil counties with the federal grant boosts the rare insect's chances of survival, officials said. But it also gives a ray of hope to Calvert bayfront homeowners who've been barred from shoring up their crumbling cliffs because of the federally protected beetles on their property.

The grant, among $53 million in payouts for endangered species protection nationally, would be paid to six landowners in the two counties for easements guaranteeing that rare beetle habitat on more than 450 acres would remain permanently undisturbed. The largest is a 230-acre Girl Scout camp on the Sassafras River in Cecil.

Maryland harbors the largest remaining population in the world of Puritan tiger beetles, a small, bronze-colored insect with blue and white markings. It burrows in steep cliffs overlooking the bay in Calvert and along the Sassafras in Cecil. The chief threats to its survival are shoreline development and cliff stabilization.

Leopoldo Miranda, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay field office, said the easements would put recovery of the rare beetle within reach, and would give the federal agency more flexibility in dealing with homeowners seeking permits to shore up the cliffs beneath their dwellings.

Three of six groups of beetles identified by biologists already have been protected, he said, and the grant would safeguard two more. With the insect's long-term survival more assured, regulators would have greater latitude under federal and state endangered species laws to let homeowners try to stabilize their cliffs even if it would cause the "incidental" loss of some beetles.

News of the grant was a pleasant surprise to Anthony Vajda, a resident of Chesapeake Ranch Estates near Lusby, whose home is among those threatened by the cliffs' gradual erosion. He said he hoped the added protection for the beetles would speed processing of permit requests by property owners seeking to protect their homes.

State and county officials are seeking other federal funds to help buy out or relocate some of the clifftop homes already damaged or in imminent peril of being undermined by erosion, Vajda said.

"Unfortunately, time is of the essence," he said. On Tuesday, Vajda said he feared the worst when he felt his house swaying from the earthquake that rattled the Mid-Atlantic region. A chunk of cliff in northern Calvert — unoccupied by either people or rare beetles — did crumble during the tremor, officials reported.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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