May 7, 2013

Brilliant, Blue, and Bouncing Back!

Defenders of Wildlife has set itself the goal of moving more than 100 endangered species up the federal recovery ladder over the next decade. Our “Road to Recovery” series will highlight several of these plants and animals and outline the challenges that lay ahead for improving their status.

The Karner blue butterfly was first identified in 1944 by the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Though better known for his controversial book Lolita published 11 years later, Nabokov was also a dedicated lepidopterist who spent time as a zoology researcher at a Harvard museum. He described the Karner blue butterfly during a trip along the New York Central Railroad in Karner, New York (now part of Albany). Now, all that remains of the town is Old Karner Street, and the blue butterfly that shares its name has been considered endangered since 1992.

The Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) was abundant in the 1900’s and once ranged from New Hampshire to Iowa and north into Canada. Today populations only persist in Wisconsin,  Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana, along with very small populations in New York and New Hampshire, having endured an astounding 99% reduction in population in the past century.

The Karner blue has an inch-long wingspan with light silver and brown hues on the underside of their wings and deep blue pigments on top. Adults drink nectar from an array of plant species, including rock cress, butterfly weed and goldenrod, and live anywhere from four to 21 days during which they mate and lay eggs. The Karner blue is bivoltine, meaning it produces two broods each year — one in spring and one in summer. The larvae have a symbiotic relationship with several species of ant that defend against predators and increase survival rates, though larva survival is ultimately dependent on the availability of just one plant.

Photo by USFWS; Joel Trickwild blue lupine

Photo courtesy of Joel Trickwild / USFWS

The Karner blue butterfly’s annual life cycle is inextricably tied to wild blue
lupine since the larva eat its leaves exclusively. The majority of the remaining Karner populations are small, and several are at risk of extinction from habitat degradation.

Wisconsin currently supports the majority of the Karner population and is the only state so far to develop a comprehensive statewide Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). As of 2006 the HCP includes 40 partners consisting of major forestry stakeholders, conservation organizations, county forest departments, utility companies, private landowners, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wisconsin Departments of Agriculture and Transportation. These groups are working together to make sure that open areas are maintained as butterfly habitat, while ensuring that potentially destructive activities like timber harvest, prescribed burns and mowing are compatible with long-term Karner conservation.

In New York, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission in New York is clearing away non-native plants and re-growing lupine to guarantee the butterflies have enough lupine. Since 1991 the Commission has been administering controlled brush fires to maintain the unique ecosystem for both plants and animals. In addition the preserve has been protecting precious habitat for the Karner as well as other native species.

For the last decade, captive-bred butterfly populations have been reintroduced to New Hampshire and Ohio by local conservation groups and are successfully breeding in the wild. The Federal Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Plan proposed in 2003 outlines a plan to restore the species over a 20-year period. But many communities are taking the initiative to start butterfly restorations programs of their own. For example, students at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, New York, began a project as part of their ecology curriculum about the Pine Bush ecosystem. Farnsworth’s seventh graders raise and study butterflies, including the Karner blue, which are then released in the summer. The students are active in scientific research with the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission and are the only school in the nation where the students are allowed to handle the Karner blue.

With collaborative efforts like these, the future of these brilliant butterflies is looking much brighter. And because they have a such a short lifecycle, populations can bounce back quickly, which means it shouldn’t take much to move these blue beauties farther down the road to recovery.

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