With people and vehicles digging into the sand all along the east coast, retired MassWildlife conservationist Tim Simmons says wild beaches are rare – he thinks most people have never even seen a wild beach. But on the vineyard, the rare and endangered northeast beach tiger beetle, a key sign of unspoiled beaches, has regained a foothold.

“Their old range was from the Chesapeake to Massachusetts,” Simmons told the Gazette by telephone this week.

For decades, Mr. Simmons conducted an annual survey of the Northeast Beach Tiger Beetle on the vineyard, having started looking for the beetles in 1986 based on their presence in historical records. He didn’t find any until 1989. But in the years that followed, Mr Simmons said the beetles had started to take up residence on the vineyard again.

“They’ve improved dramatically over the past 30 years,” he said. “A kind of coincidence.”

Liz Olson and Samantha Chaves survey the island’s beaches for tiger beetles. — Ray Ewing

Mr Simmons is now retired from MassWildlife’s natural heritage and endangered species program but remains active as a conservationist. His work studying tiger beetles in the vineyard was taken over by Biodiversity Works.

In the sands along the south shore of the vineyard, wildlife biologist Liz Olson studied the beetles weekly in July. Small, fast beach tiger beetles are tan and gray, blending into the pebbles of the surrounding beach.

“You’ll start to see them jumping around,” Ms Olson said, surveying a beach on the island closely last week.

She dove into the sand to grab one of the beetles for further examination, but no luck – just a handful of sand. No matter; it is not necessary to catch beetles for the count. She brandishes an analog meter.

“We click, click, click like we’re on the boat,” she said.

The northeast beach tiger beetle has a two-year life cycle, the vast majority of which is spent as larvae. The larvae migrate back and forth in the intertidal zones, retreating to the dunes during the winter and re-emerging on the beach during the warmer months.

In adulthood, beetles reproduce, then die.

“And then they start again,” Ms Olson said.

She said part of the survey’s goal was to find the peak season for the beetles, alongside monitoring the general population.

“We think the peak is like mid-July,” Ms Olson said.

Ms Olson said the beetles are very sensitive to activity and beach use greatly affects the population. At one Vineyard beach, the influx of seasonal visitors has caused a noticeable change, she said.

“As soon as this beach started, we had like five beetles along this stretch,” Ms Olson said.

She said populations are highest on the island, on beaches less trampled by pedestrians and vehicles. But even on the beaches all along the southern shore of the island, the northeastern beach tiger beetle has found a home.

“As this beach doesn’t seem to be used very much, and they’re doing well,” Ms Olson said.

Mr Simmons said the Northeast Beach Tiger Beetle used to populate beaches all along the New England coasts. But populations in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York have all disappeared. Rising sea levels pose another threat to beetles.

“The habitat has decreased dramatically,” he said.

Despite more than 30 years of research, Simmons said the tiger beetle’s role in the environment is still unclear, except that it is a predator in its intertidal habitat.

“We don’t know, we just think an intact system has it and a damaged one doesn’t,” Simmons said.

The results of this year’s survey are not yet complete, Mr Simmons said. But one thing is clear, the tiger beetle population on the northeast beaches of Martha’s Vineyard is on the road to recovery.

“A lot of areas that were historic [habitats] on the Vineyard have recolonized,” Mr. Simmons said.