February 17, 2011 – By Robin Comita
The Nature Conservancy has reported its latest success story preserving precious Karner blue butterfly habitat in New York. With the aid of a Saratoga County Open Space grant, the Conservancy purchased a 68 acre plot of land in the Saratoga Sandplains. The land is located within the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park and is intended to restore the Karner Blue Butterfly’s grassland habitat. The plot cost $265,000, and is the beginning of a series of changes benefitting the endangered butterfly.
The Karner blue butterfly was added to the federal endangered species list in 1992. Prior to the 1980s, the Karner blue butterfly inhabited a wide area spanning from the coast of Maine to western Minnesota. The butterfly requires wildfire and other natural disturbances to maintain its habitat and depends on the lupine flower for survival. Eggs are lain on or near lupine plants, and when the eggs hatch the young caterpillars feed on lupine leaves. As adults, the butterflies drink lupine nectar. Wildfire supports lupine growth and survival by helping to maintain the sandy and shadeless conditions the lupine relies on.
In the 1980s wildfire containment, coupled with urban encroachment and industrialization, had devastated the Karner blue butterfly population. In Canada, the species was declared locally extinct. Across the US, numbers dropped below 1,000 and their habitat covered only 5 acres in 7 of the 12 states where the butterfly once lived. Although prized for its beautiful blue coloring, few measures were taken to ensure their survival before the 2000s.
Karner blue butterflies survived in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, but there are no records showing Karner numbers in the park prior to 1993. The park is currently believed to hold the largest Karner population in the US, but conditions have improved in a number of states. In 1998, scientists gathered eggs to preserve and reintroduce into the wild in an attempt to rescue the butterfly from extinction. Although the butterfly was declared locally extinct in Ohio in the 1980s, reintroduction efforts proved successful on the Kitty Todd Wildlife Preserve. Kitty Todd Wildlife Preserve is also owned and protected by The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy has taken initiative ensuring the survival of the species since the 1990s. Scientists have captured and reintroduced the butterflies to national parks in New Hampshire, Indiana, and New York. In 2003, the Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Team, which chiefly consists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, faculty from the University of Wisconsin, individuals and various regionalized environmental organizations, composed an action plan. The plan was enacted in 2003 and titled the Recovery Plan for the Karner Blue Butterfly. Though localized to Minnesota, the recovery plan hopes to move the Karner blue butterfly from the “endangered” class to “threatened.” Such an achievement would denote the butterfly was no longer considered in immediate danger of extinction.
To ensure long term survival of the Karner blue, an estimated 300 acres of butterfly habitat is required. Currently, 125 acres have been restored and 20,000 Karner butterflies live in the wild. The Kitty Todd Preserve hosts an annual Blue Weekend Celebration for the butterfly and blue lupine. This allows visitors to view the butterfly in its habitat and listen to various speakers discuss relevant topics. Walking tours give onlookers a rare opportunity to walk off trail in the park while butterfly experts search for the rare butterfly. The 68 acre land purchase in New York is the latest in a series of improvements on the butterfly’s behalf. Habitat expansion within the Wilson park is intended to allow the butterfly to spread beyond preservation efforts and expand its natural environment.